ATLANTA — Since 2010, Auburn has sent seven defensive linemen to the NFL. Some  — Nick Fairley, Carl Lawson and Dee Ford stand out — have gone on to great success.

Still, Missouri gets a lot of attention for its defensive linemen production and there’s always talk about Alabama’s players. This season, Mississippi State’s front is in the discussion of the league’s best, so it’s understandable that Auburn feels a bit overlooked at the position.

So, with guys like Dontavius Russell, Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and others returning to lead the Tigers’ defensive line in 2018, it’s no surprise that coach Gus Malzahn brought Russell, a senior leader, to SEC Media Days on Thursday.

Malzahn started his opening press conference by praising Russell, calling him one of the most underrated players in the SEC.

“Dontavius Russell, a three-year starter, about to be a four-year starter, which is very rare in our league, very rare at Auburn,” he said. “I really feel like he’s one of the more underrated players in the league and doesn’t get enough credit for what he does. He’s a very unselfish player, he’s very consistent, and he is fixing to graduate next month.”

In his next press conference, Malzahn doubled down, switching “underrated” for “overlooked.”

“Dontavius is definitely overlooked — there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “He’s started for three years, fixing to be four. There’s just a handful of guys who I can remember in this league who have started up front for four years on the defensive side. He’s done that. He’s a very unselfish player.”

"If I’m making a play, they’ve done their job. You might see me celebrating, but if you rewind that tape, you’re definitely going to see them mauling someone and recreating the line of scrimmage."
-- Auburn LB Deshaun Davis on Dontavius Russell and the DL

Malzahn wasn’t the only one raving about Auburn’s defensive line, though. Senior LB Deshaun Davis, who led Auburn’s stout defense with 82 tackles in 2017, said he’s only successful because guys like Russell are doing their jobs up front, occupying blockers.

“Dontavius is a really good interior defensive tackle,” Davis said. “I kind of also think he gets overshadowed — a lot of people don’t talk about him for whatever reason. He’s one of the best players on the team.

“For me to be successful, those guys have to be successful. I always give them credit. I know, when it comes down to it, if I’m making a play, they’ve done their job. You might see me celebrating, but if you rewind that tape, you’re definitely going to see them mauling someone and recreating the line of scrimmage.”

When told what Davis said about Russel and the defensive linemen, Malzahn smiled. He said he fully agrees with the senior linebacker.

“Deshaun is exactly right,” he said. “(Dontavius) creates double-teams and he’s very good in the one-on-one pass rush. He’s one of our leaders.”

Russell had career-highs in tackles (46), tackles for loss (6.5) and sacks (3.0) in 2017. With numbers like that from the defensive tackle position, Malzahn thinks Russell could have gone pro, but is certainly glad the team got one of its defensive leaders back.

“I think he could have came out early and had a good chance of getting drafted,” he said. “He chose to come back, and he’s going to get his degree here in two weeks. I’m very proud of him.”

Russell cited his education as the major reason for returning to school, so now he’ll try to put the finishing touches on an incredible college career.

As for being overlooked? Russell doesn’t know if he buys into that, but whatever the case, he and his teammates will let their play do the talking.

“When the team is good, it’s all about overall success, so I don’t feel like we’re overlooked,” he said. “I feel like we get enough recognition as it is. The acknowledgement of people saying that you’re (underrated) is acknowledgement enough, so I don’t take it as disrespect.”