The SEC sends more defensive linemen to the NFL than any other conference — and it’s not even close.
A review of NFL opening day rosters by STATS LLC shows 50 defensive linemen from the SEC. The Atlantic Coast Conference is a distant second with 33.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said the SEC’s run of six straight national championships was based on strong defensive fronts.
“It’s really no surprise to me that we have that many players in the NFL,” Saban said. “Just in the few years that I’ve been here there have been quite a few first-round draft picks and some very good players that are dominant defensive linemen.
“I’ve always said that one of the things that separates our league from other leagues a little bit is the quality of the pass rushers and the athleticism of the up-front people, on defense especially.”
More top talent is coming.
LSU defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery could be first-round picks in next year’s NFL draft. Mingo could go No. 1 overall.
The SEC’s long list of standout defensive linemen also includes Auburn’s Corey Lemonier, South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney, Georgia’s John Jenkins and Alabama’s 6-foor-4, 319-pound Jesse Williams, who is most famous for his 600-pound bench press.
The NFL will have to wait on Clowney (6-6, 256), who is only a sophomore.
This week, Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is trying to devise a plan to block Florida’s defensive linemen, including Sharrif Floyd (6-3, 305) and Dominique Easley (6-2, 286). In two weeks the Vols will be facing Georgia’s pair of 350-pound nose tackles, Jenkins and Kwame Geathers. Tennessee plays Alabama and South Carolina in back-to-back weeks in October.
Game after game, the top defensive fronts keep coming. There’s no relief for Dooley and other SEC coaches.
Florida “is probably one of the best fronts in the country, but there’s more to come down the road,” Dooley said. “You look at these games and it just sums up what this league is.”
Dooley said Florida beat Texas A&M last week because the Gators’ defense “just keeps beating on them and beating on them and eventually they pull away.”
“That’s what makes this league tough,” Dooley said. “You’ve got to go against these defenses.”
Vanderbilt offensive tackle Wesley Johnson calls the barrage of matchups in the SEC “a huge challenge.” Johnson said he sees a difference when the Commodores play outside the SEC.
“I don’t think people appreciate the fact that our defensive linemen in the SEC tend to be a little bit more athletic, a little bit bigger,” Johnson said. “There’s a pretty significant difference, and that challenge every week actually helps me a lot when we go out of conference and we play other teams.”
Overall, STATS says the SEC easily leads the nation with 257 NFL players. The ACC again placed second with 211. The total does not include NFL players from Missouri and Texas A&M, who are in their first seasons in the SEC.
Mingo said the dominance is easy to explain.
“I guess just the best players come to the SEC,” Mingo said with a laugh.
NFL scouts like the speed and athleticism of Mingo (6-5, 240). He ranked among the SEC leaders in sacks and tackles for losses last year but says he wants to be known as more than a pass-rusher.
“I definitely think I’ve come a long way, just getting stronger, being in the film room, learning to play the game the way it’s meant to be played,” he said.
“I would just like to consider myself a defensive end. That’s what I am, not just on pass downs but on run-stopping and whatever else I need to do.”
The league’s best defensive lines don’t have to depend on one star.
Mingo, Montgomery and tackle Bennie Logan are only the first wave of talent on LSU’s deep defensive front. LSU also likes sophomore Anthony “Freak” Johnson, a 310-pound backup tackle.
Georgia’s big nose tackles are helped by the outside pass rush from ends Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington and star outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. South Carolina senior end Devin Taylor complements Clowney. Alabama has a deep rotation that includes Williams and ends Ed Stinson and Damion Square.
The SEC’s wealth of talented defensive linemen isn’t a surprise to Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, the former defensive line coach for the Dallas Cowboys.
“Coming from the National Football League, one of the things that attracted me to the University of Georgia was the type of players you can attract, particularly when you talk about defensive linemen,” Grantham said. “The SEC is known for their fronts, and I think that’s what separates them from all of the other conferences.
“When you watch a team from the SEC play, they have players in their front seven. They have players that can make plays. They have players that can win 1-on-1 matchups, and they have players that you have to account for to know where they’re at to make sure you don’t get your quarterback injured. They’re pretty big and physical and they can get after people.”
Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell said he puts his health in the hands of his offensive line.
“If you think about the rush, that’s when you start throwing picks,” Russell said. “All of these defensive lines in the SEC are good. LSU’s really good, Alabama, South Carolina. All of these teams have good ones.
“That’s one of the biggest reasons you saw two teams from the SEC play for the national title last season.”