College football championships are won in the trenches, and the SEC boasts some of the top defensive line groups in the nation.
Being able to pressure an opposing team’s quarterback is essential to playing elite defense. Last year’s SEC division winners Alabama and Florida finished with the most and second-most sacks in the conference, respectively, with a combined total of 92. South Carolina and Auburn, the last-place teams in each division, finished 11th and 13th in that category.
The SEC should again feature strong play from its edge rushers across the board, but here are a few of the most fearsome tandems heading into the 2016 season:
Texas A&M – Myles Garrett/Daeshon Hall
Traditionally, the Aggies have been known for their offense under coach Kevin Sumlin, but the defense took a tangible step forward under new coordinator John Chavis last season. With Myles Garrett (19.5 TFLs, 12.5 sacks) and Daeshon Hall (14.5 TFLs, 7.0 sacks) returning on the defensive line, that positive trend should only continue.
Garrett is perhaps the most talented player in the entire conference, boasting a sub-4.5 40-yard dash time and a 40-inch vertical at 6-foot-5 and 262 pounds. He dominated the competition last season, and his presence helped Hall develop into a star, as well. With former five-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack now featured on the line, getting to the quarterback will be easier than ever for the Aggies.
Missouri – Charles Harris/Walter Brady
Plenty of things went wrong for Missouri last season, but the defense continued to be among the best in college football. Under former coach Gary Pinkel, the Tigers produced some of the top defensive linemen in the nation, and they will certainly rely on their returning talent there as the Barry Odom era begins.
Charles Harris posted 18.5 tackles for loss in his first full season as a starter, a dominant mark that ranked second overall in the SEC. In fact, Harris recorded multiple tackles for loss in nine of his 12 games. On the other side, Walter Brady added 12.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks as a true freshman. Both players are relatively young and still have plenty of untapped upside remaining. Harris and Brady should both contend for All-SEC next season.
Alabama – Jonathan Allen/Da’Shawn Hand
When it comes to Alabama, talent never will be the issue. Jonathan Allen was one of the top defensive ends in the SEC last season, finishing second in the league in total sacks (12). He will try and improve upon last year’s All-SEC campaign as a dynamic senior.
On the other side, true junior Da’Shawn Hand is hungry to get on the field. A former five-star recruit out of Virginia, Hand has the physical skills to be an elite play-maker for the Crimson Tide. Of his 23 career tackles, 8.5 have been made behind the line of scrimmage, including five sacks. Allen and Hand should quickly cement themselves as one of the most dangerous duos in the conference. And that’s without even mentioning the touted trio of pass-rushing linebackers — Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson and Rashaan Evans.
Tennessee – Derek Barnett/Corey Vereen
The Volunteers have continued to stockpile talent under coach Butch Jones, and this looks like the year everything falls into place. All-SEC defensive end Derek Barnett dominated defenses as a sophomore, compiling 12.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. He also managed to finish third on the team in tackles (44), despite being a down lineman.
On the other side, senior Corey Vereen boasts 18 career starts and six sacks in three seasons on campus. If Vereen struggles out of the gates, Tennessee could also turn to No. 1 overall junior college prospect Jonathan Kongbo, who reported 25 offers coming out of Arizona West College. And, of course, the Vols also have a very talented pass-rusher at linebacker in Jaylen Reeves-Maybin.
Jones has an embarrassment of riches to choose from as he prepares a strong defensive front for this season.
Auburn – Carl Lawson/Marlon Davidson
If one thing is certain at Auburn, it’s that the talent at defensive end is undeniable. The only question that remains is the health of star Carl Lawson, who was named a Freshman All-American in 2013 after posting four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. Since then, Lawson has played just seven total games while dealing with knee and hip injuries. But even in an abbreviated year, Lawson still earned All-SEC Third Team honors in 2015 after posting 16 tackles and 11 quarterback hurries in seven games.
There is talent besides Lawson, but how those players pan out remains up in the air. Byron Cowart, the nation’s No. 3 overall recruiting coming out of high school, was expected to take over the position left by DaVonte Lambert. He disappointed in limited playing time during his freshman season, but could be poised for major improvement with some experience now under his belt. Additionally, spring enrollee Marlon Davidson impressed the staff with his physical maturity and feel for the game. However, regardless of who starts alongside him, Lawson’s health will eventually make or break this group.
Ole Miss – Marquis Haynes/Fadol Brown
Ole Miss has put together a couple of elite recruiting classes under coach Hugh Freeze. However, both starting defensive linemen for the Rebels are touted players who arrived on campus in non-traditional ways. Marquis Haynes enrolled in Fork Union Military Academy after signing with North Carolina in 2013, and then joined the Rebels in 2014 as the No. 6 prep school prospect in the nation. Next to him, Fadol Brown transferred from Florida International University and immediately became a starter.
Now, the duo is one of the best in the conference. As a full-time starter, Haynes led the team with 16.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks as one of the most disruptive defensive players in the division. Next to him, Brown started eight games and was credited with 10 quarterback hurries. Ole Miss must replace All-American defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche in the middle, but Haynes and Brown should help make the transition easier.
LSU – Lewis Neal/Arden Key
Coach Les Miles knows better than almost anyone how to find elite talent, and he found a pair of studs in Lewis Neal and Arden Key. Neal is experienced, boasting 34 career games with the Tigers as he enters his senior year. During the 2015 season, Neal broke out and became a star. In 12 games, he recorded eight sacks, eight QB hurries and defended six passes as a down lineman.
Next to him, Key showed major promise as a true freshman. Despite enrolling in July, Key broke his way into the rotation during fall camp and forced his way into the starting lineup within three games. For his effort – 41 tackles, 5 sacks, 9 quarterback hurries – ESPN named Key a Freshman All-American. With both players back in the lineup, LSU’s front should be stout again this year.