Every Monday and Thursday, Plainsman sports staffers Zach Tantillo and Nathan King will analyze an Auburn football player who has a chance to make a sizable impact on the team next season.
Today’s Fortune Teller focuses on fifth-year defensive lineman Dontavius Russell and how the most underrated member of the stout Auburn defensive line makes his impact.
Underappreciated. Undervalued. Underrated. These are just a few words that describe defensive lineman Dontavius Russell, but the fifth-year senior has a sizable impact that sometimes gets lost in a crowded defensive front.
Auburn’s defensive line has been talked about time and time again as one of the best in college football. With a line riddled with freaks of nature like Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown, T.D. Moultry and Nick Coe, it's easy to get lost in the crowd, even at 6-foot-3, 320-pounds. That's the predicament Russell is in.
In an article published by ESPN regarding the most underrated players on top-25 teams, it listed Russell as the most underrated player on Auburn’s squad.
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“You'd think a 6-foot-3, 320-pound lineman with the quickness of Dontavius Russell would get more attention, but to be fair Auburn's defensive line is loaded," the story stated. “Still, the senior nose guard deserves credit not just for anchoring one of the best lines in the country, but also doing his fair share of getting after it with 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last season.”
The article hits the nail right on the head when describing why Russell is so undervalued. On almost any other defensive line in the country, teams would be chomping at the bit to have a 6-foot-3, 320-pound defensive lineman that is so physically powering and yet still has the quickness of some defenders out on the edge.
On this play, Brown (5) and Russell (95) use a stunt rush pattern to confuse the offensive linemen. Russell then displays his quickness to get free from the linemen, giving him a free look at Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm (11) where he then demonstrates his power with a monstrous hit, forcing the fumble.
Lined up at tackle, Russell’s main job is to clog up the line of scrimmage and to anchor the front, becoming an immovable force. Obviously, that is not the sexiest of roles to play as the recognition usually goes to other linemen such as Davidson, Brown or Nick Coe. But playing a fameless position does not stop Russell from getting his in a breakout junior season: Russell picked up 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks — tying for third on the team for sacks with Brown and Davidson and No. 4 on the team for tackles for loss.
Numbers don't lie when it comes to Russell’s impact on field, Pro Football Focus has Russell with an 83.2 rating, placing him as one of the best SEC players returning next season — coming in just a few spots behind one of the top NFL prospects and partner on the defensive line, Brown.
Being underrated by the media is one thing, but Russell is far from being underrated by the team who knows the value that he brings to the field. During A-Day, Auburn handed out a few awards to players who excelled the season before and Russell was the recipient of the Great Southern Wood lineman of the year award, given to the best defensive lineman on the last year’s team.
Heading into his last spring as an Auburn Tiger, Russell was not worried about contending for a spot — he has been a starter 37 games of the past three seasons — but taking on a harder challenge by competing with himself.
“I've just been working on trying to steadily improve my game day by day,” Russell said. “Like they've been telling you to do for years, but now it's even more realistic that you really don't compete directly with someone because I have been a three-year starter and I expect to be the same coming up this next year."
Russell looks to lead and anchor one of the best defensive fronts in college football and his aspirations for next season does not fall short of that title.
"I hate to quote Ricky Bobby, but ‘if you ain't first, you're last.’ I think we're trying to be the best defense there is or the best defense we could possibly be because I feel like we've progressed every year," Russell said. "Coach Steele always says we started this thing three years ago, which we did, and we've improved steadily each year… People are saying that we have a chance to be the best defensive line in the country. I just think that it sets our defense up overall to be a better defense."
Tied for second on the team as a returning sack leader and with no emergence yet of an elite edge rusher, like Holland or Lawson, expect Russell to have a more impactful season that shows up a little more in the box score and not just in the film room.
Catch up on previous installments of the Fortune Teller series:
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