The Southeastern Conference traditionally has a strong group of defensive linemen. Over the past decade, the conference has turned out some of the most dominant defensive linemen in the nation. Last season’s crop of Jonathan Allen, Myles Garrett, and Derek Barnett accounted for three of the top 17 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft. That leaves a void to fill for the five best returning SEC defensive linemen for this season.
Five Best Returning SEC Defensive Linemen
This year, however, the group might not be as deep as it has in the past. Or, at least, it isn’t as proven entering the season.
Measuring the defensive line is a little bit harder than most position groups. There’s a much different expectation for interior tackles than for ends. Ends make their reputation rushing the passers and disrupting the backfield. Tackles earn their stripes owning the line of scrimmage, clogging up holes, and making tackles.
So, who are the five best returning SEC defensive linemen? Let’s find out.
Be sure to check our rankings of the other positions groups as well.
6. Honorable Mention
Marlon Davidson, So., Auburn: Davidson returns after a stellar freshman campaign on what could be a special Auburn defense. He was a complete player last season with 38 tackles, 6 TFLs, 4 PBUs, and 6 QB hurries. If Auburn wants to get to Atlanta, Davidson will be a key component up front.
Terry Beckner, Jr., Jr., Missouri: After two seasons shortened by injuries and discipline issues, the 6’4″, 295 lineman is hoping to finally reach his potential in Columbia. In a defense that was dreadful last season, the Tigers are hoping as much as well.
Christian LaCouture, Sr., LSU: The LSU standout missed all of 2016 with a knee issue. Standing in at 6’5″, 310, and possessing that freak athleticism that all Tigers defensive players have, LaCouture could be the perfect complement to Arden Key on a devastating LSU front seven.
Jeffery Simmons, So., Mississippi State: The freshman was talked about for his controversial actions in high school than his on-field performance last season. But he hopes to put that behind him after a solid rookie campaign. He registered 39 tackles and spent a ton of time in opponents’ backfields. They’ll need him to scrap out another bowl bid.
CeCe Jefferson, Jr., Florida: Much like Martez Ivey on the offensive side, the former five-star recruit is looking to fulfill his potential to the Gators faithful.
Da’Shawn Hand, Sr., Alabama: The three year starter was overshadowed by Jonathan Allen last season, and will likely be overshadowed by Da’Ron Payne this season. But he quietly anchors one of the top five defensive lines in the nation. The three year starter looks to make some noise of his own in his senior season.
5. Da’Ron Payne, Jr., Alabama
How could we have a list of top defensive linemen with talking Alabama. It seems the Crimson Tide produce talented front fours every season. 2017 will be no different. Da’Ron Payne produced 36 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 3.5 TFLs last season. He added a touchdown, 3 QB hurries, and a PBU for good measure. Those would be great stats for a linebacker; but for a traditional nose guard they are incredible.
Payne comes in 6’2″, 320. He plays that big but adds the athleticism of a defensive end. You’d ideally like to double team on interior running plays, but with the rest of the Alabama defense, it’s a matter of pick your poison. Certainly opposing centers would appreciate the help.
If you’re a true college football nerd, you will want to watch Payne face-off against Arkansas center Frank Ragnow in what promises to be a match-up of the two best players at their position going head-to-head when the Razorbacks travel to Tuscaloosa on October 14th.
4. Marcell Frazier, Sr., Missouri
Marcell Frazier is a guy that’s not getting much attention this season, and that’s a shame. Frazier had 33 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 8.5 TFLs last season on a Missouri defense that didn’t provide much assistance in the back end. He added 2 PBUs and 4 QBHs even in the absence of Terry Beckner, Jr. With Beckner, Jr. back, and under the tutelage of defensive line coach Brick Haley, Frazier is the defensive linemen that everyone is sleeping on.
That’s probably because he plays at Missouri. And because last season he was overshadowed by other SEC defensive ends like Myles Garrett, Derek Barnett, Arden Key, or Marquis Haynes. But Frazier let his play and his film do his talking. And there’s no denying his talent and production.
At 6’5″, 260, he’s got the height the frustrate passing lanes and the size to impact the running game. He’s as complete of a defensive end as you will find in the league. He’s as effective against the run as he is against the pass. Missouri will need Frazier to have another top season if they are to get out of the basement in the SEC East.
3. Trent Thompson, Jr., Georgia
We’ve talked repeatedly about how good Georgia’s defense ought to be. Ten returning starters. Kirby Smart at the helm. A weakened SEC East. Trent Thompson is one of the reasons why Georgia’s defense should be good.
The former overall top recruit has had a couple of solid seasons, but hasn’t reached David Pollock-like production between the hedges as yet. He’ll try to get there this season. In 2016, he had 56 tackles to go along with 5 sacks and 9.5 TFLs. All great numbers. But for Georgia to actually be the best defense in the nation, Thompson will have to turn it up another notch.
There’s no doubt the 6’4″, 310 tackle/end hybrid can do it. Much like Frazier, Thompson is effective in both pass defense and run defense. With all the talent around him, this could be a monster season for Thompson.
2. Denzil Ware, Jr., Kentucky
Denzil Ware is another top-notch player that’s getting over-looked. His omissions are for two reasons. First, he played on a Kentucky defense in 2016 that had many more opportunities to record statistics than most other teams. And secondly, he plays a hybrid end/linebacker position so people don’t really know how to classify him. Much like Arden Key at LSU, you just have to pick one position group and go with it.
For Ware, his 70 tackles last season are far and away the best for any returning defensive linemen in the league. He added 5.5 sacks and 12 TFLs along with those tackles. At 6’2″, 255, he’s a little small to have much impact inside, but clearly has the speed to live in the opposition’s backfield.
This might be Mark Stoops‘ last stand in Lexington. If Kentucky wants to build on its 2016 bowl season momentum, Ware will have to have a repeat performance this season and get a little help from his friends.
1. Marquis Haynes, Sr., Ole Miss
Marquis Haynes, like Ware and Key, is an edge rusher. But also like Ware and Key, he is a nightmare for offensive coordinators. Haynes recorded 53 tackles to go along with his 7 sacks and 11 TFLs last season. He also had 1 interception, 1 fumble return, 3 PBUs, 8 QBHs, and 33 forced fumbles. In short, he was pretty much involved on every single successful Ole Miss defensive play.
Haynes’ importance to the Rebel defense can’t be overstated. The Rebels, after a few years with top talent, are now trying to stay above water in the ultra-competitive SEC West. With mobile quarterbacks like Jalen Hurts and Nick Fitzgerald in the division, Haynes will have to continually apply pressure to keep the Ole Miss defense in the game.
Only 6’3″, 225, Haynes is a little smaller than you want your star defensive end. But he makes up for it with his athleticism and speed. As long as he can stay healthy this season, he gives the Rebels a big play opportunity on every defensive snap.