AUBURN, Ala. — Dontavius Russell doesn’t need to look at a stat sheet to be pleased with his sophomore season at Auburn.
“I feel like I played good, I did what I was asked to do,” Russell said. “I helped my teammates and different things like that.”
Then again, the defensive tackle has never been one to focus on numbers. His mindset remains the same heading into 2017, but as one of the few veterans along the Tigers defensive line, he’s embracing a new role this preseason.
In fact, though Rodney Garner isn’t easy to impress, the defensive line coach identifies the Carrollton, Ga., native as one of the players in his room who’s improved the most. That could lead to a strikingly different season on paper for the rising junior.
“Dontavius has always been solid,” Garner said. “But where he’s improved at is his productivity. Now he’s being a more productive player, making plays. Before, you could always count on him to do his job, hold the point, this and that, but now he’s taking doing his job to another level.”
One of the ways Russell judged his performance last year was by the linebackers playing behind him.
Tre’ Williams and Deshaun Davis were the second and third leading tacklers on the team. The duo was even more dangerous in games like the Iron Bowl, where they both led Auburn with 10 tackles a piece. That hasn’t earned Russell a lot of individual accolades.
Yet in a league where games are won and lost in the trenches, Auburn’s coaching staff has no doubts about his importance.
“Dontavius Russell is a leader,” Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said. “He’s so consistent. He’s just that consistent guy. He does all the technical things right. When he doesn’t make plays, he usually helps other people make plays. Whether it’s keep a lineman off a linebacker or keep his rush lane to allow somebody else. I really think it starts with him.”
Russell has been so dependable that defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has a difficult time thinking of instances where Russell has stumbled.
Steele also loves to illustrate how difficult it is to be that steady — particularly in the Southeastern Conference, where offensive linemen typically weigh over 300 pounds — and Russell usually has two players of that size coming at him.
Still, the combination of his “relentless effort” and “high skill set,” as Steele says, make Russell a force.
“He is probably as accountable a guy as we’ve got in just doing his job,” Steele said.
Russell takes pride in how he’s improved. He jokes that perhaps he’s grown meaner, but there’s a lot more to it than a change in attitude.
“Just attack points and being able to drop your knee and understanding when the pressure is coming,” Russell said. “Reading your key before the ball ever snaps and understanding when you might get the double-team. That’s helped me a lot and that’s what I try to do.”
The challenge Garner issued to Russell this spring was for the three-year starter to elevate his game even more. It’s no longer good enough to execute calls, hold points or stay in his gap. Now the unit needs Russell to make more plays.
Garner wants Russell to take ownership of the line and be more of a presence in the meeting room. And though he’s always been “a quiet kid by nature,” Garner is hoping the upperclassman becomes more of a “get-in-your-face, grab-you-by-the-collar type of leader other young stars can look and listen to.”
“He’s always done a great job with Dontavius,” Garner said. “But I need now, with a young team, you need him to do a great job with everybody else, not just with Dontavius. We’re seeing him try to show that.”