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SEC Football: Top five defensive tackles returning to conference play in 2017

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive ends receive much of the glory in college football, but it all comes from having someone that will consistently take on two offensive linemen – allowing the pass rusher in question to either sack the quarterback or drop the running back for loss of yardage.

A firm base, crisp footwork and strong hands are three important aspects when it comes to critiquing defensive tackles. For this position group, it more so about disrupting the timing of an offense up front rather than making a play for one’s self. With defensive tackles having the ability to shed offensive linemen in controlling the line of scrimmage, it allows linebackers to fill in gaps and make tackles in space.

After losing Dalvin Tomlinson of Alabama, Taiwan Johnson of Arkansas and Davon Godchaux of LSU to the National Football League, the Southeastern Conference is littered with experience returning and young guys emerging at defensive tackle. While it’s a conference that boasts Kendal Vickers (Tennessee), Benito Jones (Ole Miss) and Jeffrey Simmons (Mississippi State) among others, yours truly of Touchdown Alabama Magazine dissects the top five defensive tackles in the SEC for the upcoming 2017 season.

5. Ke Ke Kingsley, Texas A&M

Despite the conversation and hype surrounding Daylon Mack going into last season, it was Ke Ke Kingsley that produced a strong sophomore campaign. Even at a massive 319 pounds, the Richmond (Texas) native finished among the team leaders in tackles with 37. Kingsely would also record seven tackles for loss, four sacks and two quarterback hurries through 13 games.

The departures of both Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall to the NFL leaves the 6’3″ interior lineman in control of stopping the run, as well as generating pressure to quarterbacks.  Texas A&M has been dismal against the run since joining the SEC in 2012. Part of its 8-5 mark in the last three seasons have come from allowing 200-plus yards rushing a game in two of those three years, including an output of 216 yards surrendered in 2016.

Should the Aggies intend on possessing as a legit threat in the SEC West, it will start with defensive coordinator John Chavis, Kingsley and the Aggies being able to stop the run.

4. Dontavious Russell, Auburn

Byron Cowart, a former five-star, has not lived up to the hype at Auburn – regardless of his talent.

Although he’s transitioning from defensive end to tackle, Dontavious Russell will serve as the linchpin for the Tigers’ defensive front next season. He had a slight droppage in tackles in 2016 (29) versus his freshman year (42), but Russell still found ways to affect quarterbacks.

He forced signal callers out of the pocket six times during his sophomore season and 14 times through two years. Following the loses of Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, Russell will be the man in the middle with Marlon Davidson on the edge in helping Auburn’s front be solid.

3. CeCe Jefferson, Florida

Before signing with Florida in 2015, CeCe Jefferson was high on Alabama’s radar on the defensive line. The former five-star enters his second season doing some things at defensive tackle, after spending his freshman year as a primary edge rusher. His ability to not only dominate his gap, but also loop around and make plays is second to none.

He finished with 30 tackles in 2016, including 6.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks.

Jefferson was also credited with five quarterback hurries; however, his technique against the run must improve. He and the Gators allowed 144.2 yards rushing a game, with 234 yards and four touchdowns given up to Alabama in the SEC championship matchup. After losing Caleb Brantley, Jarrad Davis and Bryan Cox, Jefferson emerges as Florida’s latest anchor on the front line. An offensive identity is still needed for the Gators to win a conference title; nonetheless, it’s defense has guided it to Atlanta in the last two seasons.

2. Trenton Thompson, Georgia

As he enters his third season at Georgia, Trenton Thompson really started to emerge during the final stretch of the 2016 campaign. At 6’4″ and 309 pounds, he was third on the team in tackles (56) and first in both tackles for loss (9.5) and sacks (five). Through two years, Thompson has 81 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries for the Bulldogs.

Even in his good moments, Thompson did encounter situations where he failed to finish plays on the field. In order for Georgia to claim its first SEC championship since 2005, the defense must finish plays. The good news for head coach Kirby Smart is that he returns Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy, Jonathan Ledbetter and Roquan Smith as part of a sound rotation with Thompson.

1. Da’Ron Payne, Alabama

Behold, the freak of nature himself.

Da’Ron Payne is unarguably the strongest and fastest defensive lineman on Alabama’s roster returning next season. Listed at 310 pounds, the junior recorded a 635-pound squat, 545-pound bench and a team-high 365-pound power clean, during the Crimson Tide’s spring testing.

Seeing all numbers listed above, he also ran the 40-yard dash in 5.03 seconds.

Not only does Payne excel at making life difficult for offensive linemen, but he’s also added the ability to pressure from inside. The Birmingham (Ala.) native turned in 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries in 2016, assisting the Tide to its third straight SEC title. He was part of a unit that created 54 sacks and allowed just 64 yards rushing a season ago, and despite losing Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson and Dakota Ball, Payne is ready to be a leader.

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.

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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 10+ 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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