Marcus Spears arrived at LSU in 2001 as the nation’s top prospect at tight end. He starred on both sides of the ball in high school and believed the offensive side provided a brighter football future.
“I absolutely wanted to play tight end in college,” Spears said. “Guys that got the touchdowns got the girls.”
He got some snaps there as a freshman, and played well enough to be selected to the Southeastern Conference’s all-freshman team on offense. Touchdowns and girls, life was good for Spears, until he was summoned to coach Nick Saban’s office for a heart-sinking suggestion.
Defensive end, Mr. Spears, that’s your future — and Saban offered some encouragement.
“He took out two pieces of paper and wrote down what a defensive lineman in the NFL makes, and what a tight end makes,” Spears said. “And I said, ‘Coach, let’s try this defensive thing.’ ”
Good move. Spears left LSU as an All-America defensive end with a national championship ring. He evolved into one of the dominant linemen of the BCS era, recording 17 tackles for loss and nine sacks as a senior.
The Southeastern Conference assembly line has always cranked out quality defensive front men. Remember Tennessee’s Reggie White?
But the BCS era took defensive line play to a new level, and it became an SEC identity in the run of seven national championships in eight years.
LSU’s Glenn Dorsey created havoc all night against Ohio State in the 2007 championship game.
Alabama’s Marcell Dareus made two game-changing plays in the 2009 title game against Texas, knocking quarterback Colt McCoy out early with a mighty hit, and returning an interception for a touchdown just before halftime.
Auburn tackle Nick Fairley punctuated the goal-line stand late in the third quarter with a fourth-and-1 stuff that preserved the lead over Oregon in the 2010 title game.
Beyond the headline games, SEC ends and tackles have also ruled.
Georgia end David Pollack, who may have had the most productive college career of any lineman in the BCS era, recorded 36 sacks during 2001-04. Tennessee’s John Henderson got 20 1/2 — playing defensive tackle during 1998-2001. Terrence Cody controlled the middle for Saban’s first Crimson Tide title team in 2009.
The latest standout, South Carolina end Jadeveon Clowney, became the second defensive player taken first overall in the NFL Draft in the last 14 years.
The draft in May produced five defensive linemen in the first round. Three played in the SEC, including Auburn end Dee Ford, selected by the Chiefs at No. 23.
In the last three drafts, no fewer than three SEC defensive linemen have been taken in the first round.
Nowhere does college football Saturday look more like NFL Sunday than in the SEC, and it’s largely because of the front men whom author Ray Glier devoted a chapter — “The Baddest Men on the Planet” — in his book, “How the SEC Became Goliath.”
“In the SEC, you deal with more NFL-type talent than in any other league, especially on the line,” said Spears, whose nine-year NFL career ended after last season. “It’s not just LSU and Alabama and Florida. You see them at Ole Miss and Arkansas and everywhere else. There may not be as many at those schools, but they all have them.”
The league has played to its strength in constructing powerhouse programs. When he was at Texas Tech, Tommy Tuberville used to talk about how dealing with the skill and speed of Big 12 offenses differed from his days at Auburn.
“There’s a different mentality about how you put a team together in the SEC,” said Tuberville, now Cincinnati’s coach. “They build defenses around linemen and linebackers. They start in the middle and work out.”
SEC schools don’t often leave the league’s territory to find the nation’s top lineman prospects. And if they do, the South is where players want to play.
“We grow them in the SEC,” Spears said.
According to Rivals.com, 16 of the top 30 high school football prospects in the 2015 class are defensive ends or tackles from the SEC footprint.
Wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, the Springfield product who attended Missouri and now goes to Oklahoma, was the top-ranked recruit of 2012. But the next two years, the top-rated recruit was an SEC-bound defensive lineman.
The top player in the 2013 class, Robert Nkemdiche, a defensive end from Loganville, Ga., initially committed to Clemson before landing at Mississippi.
Rivals’ top-ranked player in 2014, De’Shawn Hand, a defensive end from Woodbridge, Va., is lining up at Alabama.
This year? It’s Byron Cowart, a defensive end from Seffner, Fla., who could break the mold and choose Oregon but also is said to be considering Florida and Alabama.
Everybody wants them.
“You walk through a shopping mall and you don’t see a lot of 6-6, 290-pound guys that can run really fast,” Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. “You gotta get lucky at places like ours.”
Or you have to assemble them yourself, as Iowa State did with a player Rhoads recruited as a walk-on when he served as a Cyclones assistant in the late 1990s.
Rhoads recalled Jordan Carstens wasn’t much over 210 pounds when he arrived, but in five years he bulked up to about 300, earned All-Big 12 recognition and spent three seasons in the NFL.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy once said that he was stunned at the depth of the position. The top teams in every major conference have talent. What Gundy noticed was superior depth. Middle-of-the-pack SEC teams had guys the big boys in other leagues were targeting.
Spears heard something similar from new Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, who spent the previous four years as a Stanford assistant and marveled at the SEC defenses as he broke down tape.
“He told me that maybe there would be one guy that’s elite on a (Pac-12) team that has the chance to go in the top three rounds,” Spears said. “In the SEC, you can deal with three on the defensive line like that every week.”
A superior interior lineman has an explosive first step with the ability to quickly shift gears, is fast enough to get to the quarterback and strong enough to control a gap, shed blockers and play the run. With ends, height and long arms help define the prototype. These are universal truths of linemen, and it has taken future NFL offensive talent to counter it.
As collegians, Chiefs quarterbacks Aaron Murray of Georgia and Tyler Bray of Tennessee spent considerable time in offensive meetings plotting against the fire-breathers.
“You had to change the count up, that was the biggest thing,” Murray said. “Those guys were able to tee off when they got a jump. And if we were playing against great defensive ends, being able to chip them with a running back or tight end. Get in a quick chip before you go on your route.”
And, if they’re available …
“Have great offensive linemen,” Bray said. “Aaron and I were both lucky to have guys blocking for us who are in the NFL.”
Murray and Bray each had their share of success. Murray left Georgia last season as the SEC career leader in passing yards (13,166) and touchdowns (121). When he finished in 2012, Bray ranked fourth on the Vols’ career passing and touchdown list. But most weeks in league play became something of a draft breakdown in the film room.
“You could have three or four guys who were potential draft picks you had to prepare for, where in a non-conference game there might be one great defensive player, and if it was an end you could slide your protection toward him,” Murray said.
But the code can be cracked, and it was last season. In a league whose champions have traditionally shut down running games, Auburn averaged 328 rushing yards per game in 2013, the most since Alabama’s 1979 wishbone-operated national championship team.
Missouri averaged a program-record 490 yards per game, and the teams combined for a 101-point, 1,211-yard track meet of an SEC championship game.
Uptempo attacks and not smash-mouth will continue to be the trend. The addition of Mizzou and Texas A&M, along with the return to the league of an offensive guru in Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, has resulted in increased scoring.
It’s also meant more snaps per game and defensive units unable to adjust to the pace.
There has also been a suggestion that as more teams picked up the offensive pace, programs could change how defenses are constructed, with more speed to cover space.
“It may be moving in that direction, but you still need to be strong up front,” Spears said.
In last season’s BCS National Championship Game, Auburn’s Ford, the Chiefs’ top draft choice, twice sacked Heisman Trophy-winning Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston. In the Cotton Bowl, Missouri end Michael Sam’s sack and strip resulted in the game-clinching touchdown.
In the end, strong defense prevails in the SEC. It starts up front and makes believers of skeptics.
“That was me,” Spears said. “I wanted to transfer when I couldn’t play offense. But it was the best move I ever made.”