AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn defensive end Dee Ford, considered one of the SEC’s top pass rushers with 8.5 sacks this season, has faced some of the top offensive lines in the conference, but he says there are none better than his own. And he should know. He goes against them for 20 to 25 minutes straight every day in practice.
“It’s just the way we work,” Ford said. “We push each other. I don’t think they’ve faced a defensive line as good as ours because we push each other to that limit every day. At times where you think you would lay off a little bit, we don’t. We’re still going at it, whether it’s run fits or pass rush. We go at it.”
It’s that drive that has turned what many thought would be a weakness into Auburn’s biggest strength this season.
The Tigers lead the nation in rushing, averaging 335.7 yards per game. They rushed for an SEC-championship-game-record 545 yards against Missouri their last time out. Throw in the fact that they have only given up 16 sacks after allowing a league-high 37 a year ago, and it’s easy to see why they’re one of the nation’s best offensive lines.
“Any time you can run the football and people know you are going to run the football against the defenses we have, the offensive line deserves a lot of credit,” Malzahn said.
When the first-year head coach arrived at Auburn, he knew right away the offensive line would be one of the team’s strengths. It didn’t matter how bad the unit looked at times in 2012; the Tigers had three starters returning and plenty of depth to go around. It was up to the new coaching staff to give them their edge back.
“Auburn is blue-collar, hard-nosed, physically and mentally tough,” Malzahn said. “That is who we are and that is how we win football games here. That is how they have done it for a long time. That is the one thing we realized that we have to get back. That is what we focused on.”
The practices changed. The drills changed. The Tigers became as physical as any team in the country, beginning last spring. They were one of the only teams to let the quarterbacks go live during fall camp. There were some injuries along the way, but now Auburn is sitting at 12-1 and headed to the VIZIO BCS National Championship.
“Any time you get to this game, you’re going to be pretty good up front with your offensive line,” Malzahn said. “In 2010, we had a veteran group, one of the strengths of our team. This year is no different.”
It comes as no surprise that the development of the offensive line has had a direct correlation to Auburn’s turnaround this season.
Left tackle Greg Robinson has emerged as a potential first-round draft pick with his play this season. Chad Slade, who moved from right tackle to right guard, has been a constant all year. Alex Kozan and Avery Young, the two newcomers to the group, have both exceeded expectations, with Kozan earning a spot on the freshman All-SEC team.
And what about center Reese Dismukes, the anchor of the group? He never doubted the offensive line, even with what transpired last season.
“I don’t think our mentality has really changed,” Dismukes said. “Our goal has always been to be the best offensive line in the country. We’ve just gotten better over time.”