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SEC Football: Top five defensive ends returning to conference play next season

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

We will return to the offensive part of this installment and pick up the front line, but for now, we turn our attention to the monsters on defense that can both stop the run and affect the quarterback.

Defensive end is a position of power in the Southeastern Conference.

Players in this role must have the hand technique to swipe away offensive tackles, while possessing the footwork and instincts to disrupt communication in the backfield. Derek Barnett of Tennessee, Jonathan Allen of Alabama, Myles Garrett of Texas A&M, Carl Lawson of Auburn and Charles Harris of Missouri were some of the best pass rushers in the conference. With the names listed above now in the National Football League, a fresh wave of creatures is primed to dominate the game. Yours truly of Touchdown Alabama Magazine breaks down the top five defensive ends returning to the SEC in the upcoming 2017 college football season.

5. Jabari Zuniga, Florida

After losing Jalen “Teez” Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Marcus Maye to the NFL Draft, Jabari Zungia becomes all the more important to Florida in getting to quarterbacks. Sure it returns Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardener in the secondary, but the intensity of Zungia is greatly needed.

As a freshman, he led the team in sacks (five) and had 8.5 tackles for loss.

Quarterback remains a position of concern for head coach Jim McElwain, and despite getting a transfer in Notre Dame’s Malik Zaire, the jury is still out on how good he really is potentially. Defense will once again the Gators’ primary avenue to Atlanta for an SEC Championship Game, and Zungia is the main force on a defensive line that intends on assisting the program to a title.

4. Marcell Frazier, Missouri 

Missouri should have all things needed offensively to have a special season – especially with Drew Lock, Damarea Crockett and J’Mon Moore all returning, but head coach Barry Odom still needs a little more work to be done on defense. The departure of Charles Harris leaves Marcell Frazier to run the defensive line as a senior in the fall. He was second behind Harris in sacks (7.5), tackles for loss (8.5) and quarterback hurries (four). Frazier chimed in with 33 tackles in 2016, but his area of improvement will be stopping the run.

Opponents averaged 233 yards rushing per contest against Frazier and the Tigers through 12 regular season games. Having players like Michael Sam, Shane Ray, Kony Ealy, Markus Golden and Harold Brantley is what delivered Missouri to two straight SEC East titles and back-to-back trips to a conference championship game under Gary Pinkel in 2013 and 2014. Frazier has to get the program back.

3. Marquis Haynes, Mississippi

He’s the lone bright spot in a world of chaos at Oxford, Miss.

While the NCAA continues to hound Ole Miss, the Rebels were overjoyed when Marquis Haynes decided to forgo the NFL Draft and return for his senior year. Even with it having very little to play for next season, Haynes is still one of the conference’s best pure edge rushers.

He leveled Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts to the ground in 2016, during the Crimson Tide’s matchup against Mississippi. Following the hit, Hurts fumbled the ball and linebacker John Youngblood recovered it and returned the fumble for a touchdown in the second quarter.

Haynes has led Ole Miss in sacks for three consecutive seasons, dating back to his freshman year in 2014 – 7.5 sacks. He pounded seven quarterbacks, while amassing 11 tackles for loss, eight quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles through 12 regular season games as a junior.

2. Da’Shawn Hand, Alabama

He watched A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, D.J. Pettway, Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson all have success at Alabama on the defensive line, and now it’s his turn. A five-star recruit from Woodbridge, Va., Da’Shawn Hand was a marquee signee in Alabama’s 2014 class. Fans expected him to have an immediate impact, and though it’s taken him a while to get adjusted, Hand finally possesses the strength, instincts and technique to lead this fierce unit.

He’s racked up 44 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, seven sacks and seven quarterback hurries through three years; nonetheless, Tide’s head coach Nick Saban expects those numbers to be higher. In order for Alabama to win a fourth straight SEC championship and 17th national title in program history, its defensive line must be in tact.

1. Arden Key, LSU

Like Florida, LSU hopes its quarterback situation will work out.

In returning Arden Key to Baton Rouge, La., Louisiana State University boasts not only the best pass rusher in the conference but probably the entire college football nation. Key followed up a good freshman campaign with better sophomore numbers.

He led the team in sacks (12), tackles for loss (14.5) and quarterback hurries with 11, while holding opponents to 3.3 yards rushing per carry. His freakish athleticism on the edge gives him the tools in playing both the run and pass well. Key and the Tigers’ defense held Alabama in check for much of last season’s meeting, until a Jalen Hurts 21-yard run gave the Tide a 7-0 lead in the fourth quarter and ultimately a 10-0 victory.

A focused LSU bunch on defense mixed with just enough offense to keep opposition off balance could lead to the Bayou Bengals returning to Atlanta for a championship.

Stephen M. Smith is a managing editor and senior writer for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @Smsmith_TDALMag.

Stephen Smith is a 2015 graduate of the University of Alabama. He is a senior writer and reporter for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. He has covered Alabama football for 15 years and his knowledge and coverage of the Crimson Tide's program have made him among the most respected journalist in his field. Smith has been featured on ESPN and several other marquee outlets as an analyst.

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