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Is 2015 the Year of the defensive lineman in the SEC?

3/12/2015

The 2014 season marked only the third time since 2000 that the SEC champion didn't have at least one defensive lineman who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches.

It's a reminder that you better have difference-makers up front defensively if you're going to win a championship in this league.

The game has changed, for sure. Teams are scoring more points, and offenses are playing faster than ever before. The defensive numbers have suffered as a result, even in the SEC where defense was once king.

That doesn't diminish the importance of having dominant defensive linemen and dynamic finishers off the edge who can rush the quarterback. The SEC has had more of those players historically than any other conference, and it's the chief reason the SEC has won eight of the past 12 national championships.

So if you're looking for a position that will define the SEC in 2015, look no further than defensive line and pass-rusher.

Alabama's Nick Saban has been a head coach in both the SEC and Big Ten and scouted players from all conferences while coaching the NFL's Miami Dolphins.

In his mind, one of the things that separates the SEC from other leagues is the "quality of the pass-rushers and the athleticism of the up-front people on defense."

In the past three drafts, 13 defensive linemen/pass-rushers from the SEC have been selected in the top two rounds. Florida's Dante Fowler and Missouri's Shane Ray are projected by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. to go in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft.

More are on the way, too, especially when you look at the collection of defensive line talent that has already proven itself in the SEC and some of the young guns set to arrive this summer.

Two of the returning sack leaders in the SEC were both true freshmen a year ago.

Texas A&M's Myles Garrett was second in the league to Ray with 11.5 sacks as a freshman, and freshman Tennessee's Derek Barnett was just a few spots behind with 10 sacks. The amazing thing is that neither player was an early enrollee last year. They both reported in the summer without the benefit of spring practice and immediately started putting up huge numbers.

Already, first-year Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis is a believer, and he has been around his share of big-time defensive linemen.

"In our system, we want to be good at defensive end, and it didn't take us long to figure out that we have some pretty good talent there," Chavis said.

The Vols were thrilled to get Barnett a year ago and knew he was an excellent prospect, but coach Butch Jones had no idea the 6-foot-3, 267-pound Barnett would have the impact he did as a freshman. His 18 tackles for loss in SEC games led all players, and nobody else in the league had more than 12.

"He just took off and kept getting better," Jones said. "The best thing about him is that he's nowhere near as good as he's going to be."

Barnett is recovering from shoulder surgery and won't participate in spring drills. The same goes for senior Curt Maggitt, who finished with 11 sacks last season and gives the Vols the best returning sack tandem in the league. The 6-3, 251-pound Maggitt splits his time between outside linebacker and defensive end, but is at his best as an edge rusher.

Speaking of pass-rushers, Auburn's Carl Lawson appears to be fully recovered after missing last season with a torn ACL. He was a Freshman All-American two years ago and is the kind of disrupter up front that first-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp needs if he's going to retool a defense that produced just 10 sacks in eight SEC games last season.

If you're looking for the SEC team with the deepest defensive line, that would be Alabama. A'Shawn Robinson can play nose or end in the Tide's 3-4 set and played his best football down the stretch a year ago. His junior season should be his best yet.

Junior end Jonathan Allen is another one on that Alabama defensive front with star potential. He had 11.5 tackles for loss last season, including 5.5 sacks, and may be ready to explode in 2015.

The same goes for Ole Miss tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who didn't have great numbers a year ago. But he's such a physical and athletic presence inside that his numbers don't begin to tell you what kind of player he is. Just turn on the tape and watch him collapse the pocket.

Prior to last season, an NFL scout suggested that no defensive lineman in the SEC had a better combination of size and talent than Mississippi State tackle Chris Jones, who says he's still an end at heart. The 6-5, 308-pound Jones might want to take a cue from Nkemdiche and fully embrace the move to tackle, because if he does, it's scary how good he can be.

Is it possible to assess the Year of the Defensive Lineman in the SEC without mentioning LSU? The Tigers have had eight defensive linemen drafted over the past four years, and that number will grow when Danielle Hunter hears his name called two months from now.

Next up in that pipeline is sophomore tackle Davon Godchaux, who led all LSU interior linemen with 42 total tackles last season as a true freshman. Godchaux didn't play his senior season of high school after injuring his knee. He has already grabbed first-year coordinator Kevin Steele's attention.

Georgia, which runs a 3-4 system under Jeremy Pruitt, is loaded with talent at outside linebacker. Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd are the veterans, but don't be surprised if sophomore Lorenzo Carter develops into the most feared pass-rusher on the team. He had 4.5 sacks as a true freshman.

And speaking of young guys, several incoming true freshmen are poised to make immediate impacts in 2015.

Among them: Byron Cowart at Auburn, Terry Beckner Jr. at Missouri, Trenton Thompson at Georgia, Daylon Mack at Texas A&M, CeCe Jefferson at Florida and Kahlil McKenzie at Tennessee.

There are sure to be more, too.

This is still a line-of-scrimmage league, and the talent on the defensive front in 2015 will be hard to miss.