In two seasons under defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, the play of Auburn football’s defensive line has indicated how the Tigers are faring as a team.

That’s why the Christmas Day news of Dontavius Russell’s return to The Plains for the 2018 season was so important.

“That’s a big decision that needed to be made and the coaches are very happy,” senior safety Tray Matthews said at Peach Bowl media day. “The defense definitely needed him. He’s one of those big, solid guys in the front that controls the defensive line, line of scrimmage.”

The announcement became even more significant in the days following the New Year’s Day loss to UCF, when Auburn learned it would be losing defensive lineman Jeff Holland to the NFL draft. Russell’s choice to come back made the loss of “Sensei Mud,” the first-team All-SEC sack master, far less devastating.

Russell had lots of reasons to opt for a fifth year in orange and blue. The main motivation, however, was helping others. In his final year at Auburn,  he’ll do just that — first on the gridiron as he prepares to do it for the rest of his life.

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But Russell, who redshirted in 2014, is one of those football players who realizes that the word “student” comes before “athlete” in most cases.

“The narrative of college football is always you’re a student-athlete first,” Russell said. “I didn’t want that to change, given the success that I had playing football. I wanted to make sure I was able to complete my degree before moving forward to a new chapter of my life.”

Dontavius Russell finished the 2017 season with 46 total tackles (6.5 for loss) and 3 sacks. (Benjamin Wolk/SEC Country)

Russell will get his degree in Health Services Administration in the coming months. He has only two classes to complete. After that, the Georgia native will get to work on his master’s degree, a feat he and his family are thrilled about.

“It means a lot, you know,” Russell said. “The more education you’re able to get the more opportunities will open up. To be able to at least start my master’s before leaving college will encourage me to come back and get it. I want to be able to complete as much education as possible.”

Furthering his education is critical to Russell’s future after football. He grew up looking to his mother, Latrice Russell, who worked as a nurse. His goal was always to give back to others like she did. Russell even started off as a nursing major his freshman year.

“I’ve always been around a hospital setting, and I just wanted to make sure that I was able to stay in health care in some way,” Russell said. “That’s how I ended up being in health administration. I just always wanted to help people.”

It’s no surprise then, that Latrice Russell was one of the people the upperclassmen consulted with before making a final decision on his professional football future.

“He wants to be able to help people and that means even more to us,” Latrice told SEC Country this fall. “We’re football fans. We’re fanatics, especially my husband, but we’ve always emphasized that education is first. Everyone has that big dream. Who doesn’t? And I don’t think Dontavius would say it wasn’t his dream to be able to play at the next level, but at the end of the day education comes first.”

He’s still figuring out which specific path he’ll take when he’s hung up his cleats for good, but those around him have no doubt he’ll be able to cause change.

MORE: Stats don’t begin to tell the story of Auburn’s dominating Dontavius Russell

Before Russell helps others in the world of health care, though, he’ll take pressure off of his teammates as he navigates the SEC West one more time next season.

“I feel like we have a really good defensive line and if you can keep that intact I feel like we’ll perform the same,” Russell said. “I don’t see us having a dropoff or anything like that. I’ve been a starter for three years and to be able and be a mainstay on the defensive line again is something I feel like would be beneficial for the Auburn football team.”

Overall, Russell has gotten more praise for things that haven’t shown up on stat sheets. He’s respected as one of the most important members of the Tigers’ front four.

“Oh, I’m very excited,” Marlon Davidson said of his teammate’s return. “That’s one of the strengths to our defensive line. He takes up two and makes plays. He’s a great football player and I’m glad he’s back.”

Russell will also provide leadership for young players such as T.D. Moultry and Big Kat Bryant. After all, he’s survived four tough years under defensive line coach Rodney Garner — a feat that deserves celebration in its own right.

“He is one of the best players in our league,” Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said. “He has got great experience. He plays the run extremely well. He rushes the passer extremely well. Like I said, he is one our leaders. He is on my leadership committee and just a high-character young man with a great family. He is an impact player.”

Russell wants to make an even bigger impact in his final go-round. The 6-foot-3, 310-pound lineman is looking to make some small changes that could have a big effect on his game.

“In the coming year I hope to, I’m going to try to slim down a little bit, get faster, get better technique-wise,” Russell said. “I know the things I have to work on, and having another year to do it and to be able to do it on the college level still, I felt like it would be beneficial for me.”

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