The Southeastern Conference has long been known for producing great defensive linemen, and defensive tackles in particular. This year is no different. Our list of the top ten SEC defensive tackles features many of the nation’s best at the position, and two Auburn Tigers that may or may not spend the majority of the 2014 season as interior defensive linemen.
1. Gabe Wright*, Auburn
The unfortunate thing about ranking Gabe Wright as the best defensive tackle in the SEC is knowing that he will not get much of an opportunity to play there until Carl Lawson comes back from his knee injury. Wright had 31 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, three sacks and nine quarterback hurries last season, but his production extends beyond the stat sheet.
His presence in the middle made it much more difficult for teams to game plan specifically for Dee Ford, which freed Ford up to make plays on the outside (including 10.5 sacks in 2013). The Tigers will miss having Wright inside, but he fits a need at end and Auburn still has some talented tackle choices to turn to in Montravius Adams, Angelo Blackson and Ben Bradley.
2. Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
In today’s day and age, the nation’s top high school players become superstars before they even step onto college campuses. Robert Nkemdiche, the crown jewel of the 2013 signing class, was one of those players. It can be very difficult to live up to such high expectations, but Nkemdiche did as a true freshman on his way to Freshman All-American honors.
Initially a defensive end, the sophomore has outgrown the outside position. He is still athletic enough to play end if necessary, but Nkemdiche will be a star at defensive tackle for the Rebels. He may not improve on his 34 tackles from last year, but should have more than two sacks and six tackles for loss.
3. Chris Jones, Mississippi State
Overshadowed at times by in-state rival Nkemdiche, Chris Jones had as impressive a true freshman season as anyone in the nation. The former five-star prospect, like most defensive tackles, is not likely to light up the stat sheet – especially once he receives more double-team attention from opponents. However, his impact will be easy to see on film. Jones recorded three sacks, four tackles for a loss, and a very impressive ten quarterback hurries last season and is athletic enough (and determined) to play some defensive end as well.
4. Vince Taylor, Vanderbilt
Far from a household name, Vince Taylor should excel in new head coach Derek Mason’s 3-4 defense. The senior has appeared in 38 games over the last three seasons, and made ten starts last season. An ideal nose guard, the 6-foot-2, 310-pounder will eat up space in the middle of the line and allow Vanderbilt’s ends and linebackers to make plays.
5. Darious Cummings, Florida
Cummings took the scenic route to Gainesville, starting his career at Florida State and spending a year in junior college before joining the Gators. He started the last six games for Florida’s vaulted defense, and contributed 15 tackles, two for a loss, a sack and an interception.
6. Brandon Ivory, Alabama
From a talent standpoint, Brandon Ivory is one of the best defensive players in the Southeastern Conference. Of course, we do not yet know if and when he will be on the field for the Crimson Tide this season. Head coach Nick Saban announced at the team’s first practice that Ivory, as well as teammates Jarran Reed and Tim Williams, were all suspended for a “violation of team rules.” Last season, Ivory started 12 games for Alabama, had 24 tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss.
7. JT Surratt, South Carolina
Surratt is a perfect example why South Carolina has grown into a conference power under Steve Spurrier. The senior was lightly recruited coming out of high school, improved over his first two years on campus and became a big contributor as a junior. Last season, Surratt benefitted from playing with two All-Americans on the defensive line, and tallied 33 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. He will get more attention this year, but will be a solidifying force on a young Gamecocks defensive line.
8. Chris Mayes, Georgia
Mayes was expected to compete with Jonathan Taylor for the starting spot at nose guard for the Bulldogs. However, now that Taylor has been dismissed from the program, the position belongs to Mayes. He started eight games last year and had 31 tackles and a sack.
9. Leon Orr, Florida
There are some questions when it comes to Orr’s health after he missed the spring with a wrist injury. However, Orr is very productive when he is on the field, and is yet another piece to the league’s best defensive line. Last season, Orr started eight games appeared in 12, and notched 4.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks.
10. Darius Philon, Arkansas
Nkemdiche and Jones were not the only freshman defensive linemen to make an impact in 2013. In his redshirt freshman season, Philon earned a spot on the All-SEC Freshman team. He started five games, played in 12 and was very active. Philon assembled 46 tackles, six tackles for a loss and three sacks last year.
11. *Montravius Adams, Auburn
Again, the Auburn Tigers have a player that ranks just outside the top ten. But with Gabe Wirght likely to spend much of the 2014 season at defensive end, Adams has an opportunity to move onto the list. He is not yet a solidified starter, and will rotate with Ben Bradley and Angelo Blackson, but Adams is one of the most talented interior defensive linemen in the SEC. A five-star talent, Adams had 20 tackles and showed quality pass rush ability with a sack and seven quarterback hurries. In fact, he is athletic enough to factor in at defensive end for the Tigers as well.