We continue our look at the top returning SEC football players at each position group ahead of the 2018 campaign. It's time to shift our focus to the defensive side of the ball. As always, the battle to win the game begins at the line of scrimmage. The SEC will lose a number of talented defensive linemen to the NFL draft, but there are guys waiting in the wings ready for their time to shine. Here are the best returning defensive linemen in the league.
Montez Sweat – Mississippi State
It was a weird year for defensive linemen and SEC sack leaders in 2017. Normally it is fairly easy to predict the names that will be at the top of the sack charts, but last season it was a crop of under the radar players that stepped up to be crowned as the sack kings. One such player was Georgia native Montez Sweat of Mississippi State.
Sweat was the leading pass-rusher in the league last year and – somewhat surprisingly – he opted to return to the Bulldogs for his senior season as opposed to bolting for the NFL. He recorded 10.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss in his first season in Starkville after transferring from Co-Lin Community College.
Sweat was slow out of the blocks in 2017 – registering zero sacks over the first month of the season – before blowing up as the year went on. If Sweat gets off to a fast start in 2018, then watch out.
Landis Durham – Texas A&M
The co-sack leader with Sweat in 2017 was Landis Durham of Texas A&M. He was another player that came from nowhere to star as a junior and has stuck around for his senior season to give NFL scouts something to think about and not be classed as a one season wonder.
Durham equaled Sweat with 10.5 sacks, but he had a few fewer tackles for a loss, ending the season with 12.0 in that category. He began the 2017 season as an unknown converted linebacker that had never really shown much on the college field, but in 2018 he will be the focus of every game plan when it comes to attacking the Aggies defensive front.
Durham will have to be good in 2018 as there isn’t much across from him on the line of scrimmage at the other defensive end spot.
Raekwon Davis – Alabama
It would be a shock to compile this list without an Alabama player being involved given the Crimson Tides’ consistent level of defensive line play over the last decade.
The Nick Saban representative on this list is Raekwon Davis, a massive defensive end who was fifth in the SEC in sacks last season with 8.5 to go along with 10 tackles for a loss and 69 total tackles. Davis is a unique player in both his build and his play style. The 6-foot-7 defensive end is bigger than most offensive tackles he faces, so the challenge is often staying low enough to get a leverage advantage and correctly use his massive power base in a pass rush scenario.
Davis will have to adapt to the rigors of being a starter and playing extended snaps after only starting six games for Alabama in 2017. He was a key rotational player and if he can continue to show his surprising burst while taking on a heavy workload then he could be the start SEC defensive end in 2018.
Derrick Brown – Auburn
Brown is big even by defensive tackle standards. The 6-foot-5, 316 pound powerhouse is almost impossible to move off of the line of scrimmage when he gets his technique correct. He is also an unreal athlete for his size, allowing him to act as far more than just an immobile run stiffer. That is how he finished second on the team in bother tackles for a loss (nine) and sacks (3.5) in 2017.
The depth of the Auburn defensive tackle rotation allows Brown to perform at his best on every snap. The Tigers junior has already been named as a “rare, rare talent” by ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. Brown has an outstanding motor – especially for a player of his size – and his ability to run down and pursue ball carriers is another reason why Auburn won so many games in 2017.
Other notable returning SEC defensive linemen: Terry Beckner Jr. – Missouri, Jeffery Simmons – Mississippi State, Cece Jefferson – Florida, Dontavius Russell – Auburn, Marlon Davidson – Auburn, Dare Odeyingbo – Vanderbilt, Julian Rochester – Georgia, D.J. Wonnum – South Carolina