Jay G. Tate/AuburnSports.com
Dontavius Russell may stand 6-foot-3, but he can be easy to miss on the field.
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Defensive tackles work inside where standing out individually, at least to those in the stands, requires sacks or other tackles for loss or at least chasing quarterbacks around the horn. Russell did little of that in 2016 — he failed to record a single tackle for loss — and that gives him little conventional credibility.
Numbers only tell part of the story at defensive tackle, though, where a strong human being who can muddy two gaps simultaneously or battle to a draw against double teams makes a difference. A big difference. Auburn's linebackers know all about it; they were provided more space to roam last season because the defensive line occupied more blockers.
Russell and Montavious Adams were the reasons.
Though Adams is a more of a quick-twitch guy, Russell, who ranks No. 11 in the AuburnSports.com Top 20, has proven himself capable of making a difference up front without star agility. He plays exactly as he's coached. Russell works low, plays with his head up, almost always maintains leverage to prevent any backward push.
The weakness is Russell's hands. The best defensive linemen have what coaches call "violent hands," which help defenders get into better position to beat blockers. That skill is most valuable at end, but being able to disengage from a block is critical for anyone working in the box. Russell struggles with that part of the game — mostly because bull rushing worked well for him in high school. Now three years into his college career, he's more attuned to the need for better hand use. Still, Russell is mostly a gap defender against the run who rarely offers more than token pressure against the pass.
Can Russell offer more? If Derrick Brown becomes a valuable pass rusher this season and end Marlon Davidson adds some sacks to his resume, Russell will face more one-on-ones. Russell also is a hard worker who wants to upgrade his quickness, which matters. At least he understands his weaknesses.
Even in his 2016 form, Russell is a useful piece of the puzzle for position coach Rodney Garner. Any sustainable progress in terms of agility or hand violence could turn Russell into an all-conference kind of player.
ON THE UP SIDE: Durability, hard-edged disposition, strength
ON THE DOWN SIDE: Lack of explosiveness, lack of hand violence
VOTING RESULTS: Jeffrey Lee (7th), Jay G. Tate (7th), The Bunker (12th), Bryan Matthews (Not Ranked)
2016 RANKING: No. 10
POSTSCRIPT: I'm always struck by the way Russell handles the media. I interviewed him twice during his high-school days, walking away both times thinking he was a shy guy. Having now interviewed him dozens of times as a college player, I believe his reticence is more about healthy skepticism of limelight rather than shyness. There's a big difference. Russell is extremely careful with his words and endeavors to say as little as possible when reporters are around. He's a much different person on the sideline, however, where he's probably the defense's most chatty (and jovial) starter. There's no question that Russell's tough, yes-sir-no-sir attitude works well with Garner's coaching style, which demands a thick skin and zero lip. In fact, Russell seems to act and talk like Garner more and more each year. They're peas in a pod.
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