Breaking down every team’s roster with an emphasis on experience and potential impact, here’s a team-by-team look at the SEC’s best position groups along the defensive line — including tackles and ends — heading into the 2014 season.

Note: These are based on every team’s roster up front on defense, not individual player rankings.


14. Tennessee: Starting jobs have been up for grabs throughout fall practice for the Vols who replace every impact player off last season’s defensive front four. Curt Maggitt, a dominant linebacker who missed last season with an injury, has been moved to defensive end to strengthen Tennessee’s pass rush. Butch Jones and defensive coordinator John Jancek have been impressed with several newcomers including Derek Barnett, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound true freshman who could play inside or off the edge. Redshirt junior defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry is one of a handful of veterans who hasn’t had much playing experience, but will be counted on to contribute.

13. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost a good bit of power along the defensive line this summer following the dismissal of projected starters Gavin Stansbury and Isaiah Golden, but Kevin Sumlin’s 10-man rotation this fall (featuring five-star freshman end Myles Garrett) has the potential to help the Aggies recover from last season’s dreadful performance. Texas A&M posted 21 sacks (10th in the SEC) during the 2013 campaign. Entering his third season as a starter on the edge, junior Julien Obioha is a veteran leader along with defensive tackle Alonzo Williams. Williams earned a starting gig in the middle as a sophomore last fall.

12. Vanderbilt: Two of the Commodores’ top pass rushers, Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann, have moved to linebacker spots in Derek Mason’s new 3-4 defense to make room for a trio of 300-pound run-stoppers up front — Adam Butler, Barron Dixon and Vince Taylor. Butler, a former offensive lineman, is Vanderbilt’s potential star after posting impressive numbers in six starts as a redshirt freshman. He used his healthy reach and massive 6-foot-5 frame to block two kicks last season. Butler’s quickness frustrated opposing centers. Taylor’s the team’s most experienced player up front with 38 career appearances, but production’s been subpar.

11. Georgia: Glaring issues for first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt in the secondary means production from his multi-player rotation up front in Georgia’s 3-4 base is essential. As many as eight players could see playing time at the nose tackle and two end spots led by projected starters Sterling Bailey and James DeLoach. Ray Drew’s the wild-card, a former five-star recruit who appeared to break out of his shell last season with six sacks. Drew has the skill set to potentially star as Georgia’s best three-point stance player, but the athletic pass rusher’s career long inconsistencies have held him back. Losing Jonathan Taylor this summer was a damaging blow to this unit.

10. South Carolina: The Gamecocks may have lost No. 1 draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, fierce tackle Kelcy Quarles and end Chaz Sutton, but they aren’t talent-deprived up front. Lorenzo Ward likes the progress he’s seen out of Darius English after the redshirt sophomore put on a few extra pounds during the spring to strengthen his 6-foot-6, 245-pound frame. Fifth-year J.T. Surratt is the probable sack and tackles for loss leader as the Gamecocks’ lone returning starter along the defensive line.

9. Arkansas: Defensive end Trey Flowers and tackle Darius Philon are two of the SEC’s best defenders at their respective positions, standouts the Razorbacks are leaning on to deliver this season. Sophomore Deatrich Wise has the potential to be an impact player as well after impressing coaches with 17 tackles and two sacks despite a limited number of snaps as a situational pass rusher last season. By season’s end, reserve true freshman tackle Bijhon Jackson could be a household name if his rapid development continues.

8. Kentucky: The Wildcats’ strongest personnel group this season figures to be its defensive line, anchored by bookends Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree. The pair combined for 13 sacks last fall as relative unknowns, but now both players are circled on scouting reports. Dupree’s capable of a monster season and will be an impact player on Sundays. Mammoth true freshman Matt Elam, who spurned Alabama for Kentucky, will also make noise. As a viewer, you won’t be able to miss his 6-foot-7, 375-pound frame clogging the opposing backfield.

7. Ole Miss: Robert Nkemdiche’s the obvious headliner up front for the Rebels, but junior defensive tackle Isaac Gross was the team’s sack leader last fall from his spot in the middle. He’s been hampered by a lingering neck injury this fall and has missed most of practice, but coaches expect him to be ready for the opener against Boise St. on Aug. 28. Welcoming highly-skilled end C.J. Johnson back from injury will bolster the Ole Miss pass rush along with the emergence of FIU transfer Fadol Brown.

6. LSU: Give John Chavis four Danielle Hunters to rush the passer and he won’t complain. Hunter paired with Jermauria Rasco creates a fierce tandem with sizable expectations from the LSU coaching staff. The lack of a consistent rush hurt the Tigers last fall and these two players have the talent to change that. Only a sophomore, Christian LaCouture has separated himself from the rest of the competition at defensive tackle during fall practice and should make a substantial impact. Redshirt freshman Greg Gilmore could show out if he gets reps in tackle Quentin Thomas’ spot who is sidelined for the season with torn biceps.

5. Mississippi St.: There’s not many flaws up front for the Bulldogs who return all but one player on last season’s two-deep along the defensive line. While Chris Jones is the star, a preseason first team All-American as one of college football’s standout sophomores, Kaleb Eulls is the most battle-tested performer. Eulls has started all 39 games during his Mississippi St. career as a wide-bodied run-stopper. P.J. Jones is a fellow senior tackle who is looking for a breakout campaign. Curtis Virges and Nelson Adams will also be key contributors.

4. Mizzou: Even without Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, Mizzou’s defensive front four should be one of the SEC’s most athletic and productive this season. Defensive end Markus Golden’s a potential SEC sack leader while Shane Ray’s a tackle machine. Tigers defensive coordinator Dave Steckel’s scheme plays to his game-changers’ strengths and has a knack for getting after quarterbacks with heavy pressure off the edge and through gaps.

3. Florida: Unleash the beast. Nicked up at times last season, Dante Fowler’s expected to have a stellar junior campaign at the heart of D.J. Durkin’s talented defense. Last season, Fowler led his team in tackles for losses and was a first-team all-conference selection by Phil Steele. The Gators have immense depth at the strong-side defensive end spot with Jonathan Bullard as the starter followed by five-star freshman Gerald Willis who has impressed in camp. Leon Orr, a fifth-year senior, is a run-stopper in the middle.

2. Alabama: Known for its playmaking prowess at the line of scrimmage, Alabama’s not short on talent in the trenches this season. A’Shawn Robinson’s one of most physically-gifted players the program’s signed in recent years and is capable of a double-digit sack season if he stays healthy. Five-star freshman Da’Shawn Hand hasn’t made substantial preseason waves like his rookie colleague in Aggieland but will make an immediate impact nonetheless. Returners Jonathan Allen and Brandon Ivory provide stability to a strong unit blessed with depth.

1. Auburn: There are few teams who could lose arguably their top pass rusher and still dominate, but that’s a safe bet for Ellis Johnson’s defensive line at Auburn this season. Dealing with Carl Lawson’s likely season-ending knee injury wasn’t ideal, but the Tigers have immense depth and are senior-heavy up front with Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson, Jeff Wright and Ben Bradley assuming the role of veteran leaders. Coaches are also expecting stellar play from Montravius Adams, a monstrous sophomore tackle who recorded 20 stops last season.