NCF Nation: Ben Bradley

AUBURN, Ala. – When Gabe Wright looks at Auburn’s defensive line, he sees a lot of potential and something really special.

The Tigers’ senior defensive lineman sees talent spilling out and the experience needed to create even more of a presence than the one this line had during Auburn’s 2013 BCS title game run.

“As far as ability-wise, this D-line could go down as, if not the best, one of the best in the SEC and NCAA,” Wright told ESPN.com in April.

Wright doesn’t mince his words. He’s serious about the potential from a defensive line that could play five seniors, line up three rising sophomores or play all defensive tackles. He’s that confident about the players around him.

[+] EnlargeMontravius Adams
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMontravius Adams displays "unbelievable" talent on Auburn's defensive line.
Last year, Auburn’s defensive line was very much a work in progress to start the season. The line grew with every week and produced a first-round draft pick in end Dee Ford, who was second in the SEC with 14.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks last year. Freshmen Carl Lawson, Elijah Daniel and Montravius Adams matured quickly.

Really, when people think about and dissect Auburn’s defensive line, they mostly come back to those blossoming youngsters who will all play even bigger roles up front this fall. As last season wore on, those three went from role players to rotational players.

“They have a better understanding,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told ESPN.com in April. “Their heads aren’t spinning like they were [last season]. They have a better understanding of the defense than their roles.”

And while the sophomores-to-be, who were all ESPN 300 prospects in the 2013 recruiting class, will have a lot more on their respective plates this fall, they certainly won’t be alone to shoulder all the responsibility.

Ford is gone, but there’s leadership from Wright and fellow seniors Angelo Blackson, LaDarius Owens and Ben Bradley, who combined for 18.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last year. They'll also benefit from the return of senior Jeffrey Whitaker, who missed all of last season with a knee injury.

All that leadership was crucial to the group's success this spring as the line found itself short on defensive ends because of graduation and injuries.

Owens, who Wright classifies as “freakish,” broke his foot a week before spring practice began, and Daniel pulled his groin 20 minutes into the first spring practice. Because of that, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and defensive line coach Rodney Garner had to move Wright and Adams to end for the sake of numbers.

The moves were good and bad for the Tigers. On one hand, Johnson said he’d like to use heavier fronts at times this fall, so Wright and Adams needed some work outside. But it took away valuable time those two could have used inside this spring, as both will still mainly be tackles this fall. Johnson didn’t like having to play guys outside longer out of necessity while taking away from the main looks Auburn will run this fall.

Still, watching Adams cross-train caught Johnson’s eye. Johnson already knew Adams was an athlete because he played tackle, end, running back, tight end and punted in high school. But Johnson said he saw some pursuit plays from Adams that were “unbelievable,” and he’s excited about Adams' second-year capabilities.

“He’s so athletic for his size, he can do about anything,” Johnson said with a laugh.

Another youngster to grab Johnson's attention was Lawson, who could be his most talented lineman. Lawson was second on the team with four sacks last year and evolved more this spring, Johnson said.

What really impressed Johnson about Lawson was his thirst for being more well-rounded this spring, tossing the “rookie flash” to be an “every-down player.”

“A good spring in our system and he’ll learn all the special things that it’ll take to be a complete player,” Johnson said. “He did some great things for us last year but had little mistakes here and there just from a lack of experience.”

Johnson didn’t get all the work he wanted out of his line this spring, but he’s excited. He likes the foundation and the crop of blue-chip players coming in, headlined by junior college tackle DaVonte Lambert. Johnson doesn’t have a Dee Ford to throw out there right now, but he sees flashes of something special.

What was a major question entering last season should be a bright spot for the Tigers in 2014.

“Let’s just face it: We have so many packages, so many guys who can hit you where it hurts,” Wright said. “We have ends who can make the quarterback step up and tackles who can push the pocket and rush the passer.

“Will I say that the talent level could be as good as Dee’s? Yes, I’ll absolutely say that.”
Editor’s note: Each day this week, Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in next Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship. The first matchup is between Florida State’s offensive line and Auburn’s defensive line.

Florida State’s offensive line: The five starters on the line for Florida State are all NFL prospects. The group is led by senior center Bryan Stork, a first-team AP All-America selection. Tackle Cameron Erving and guard Tre' Jackson were first-team All-ACC selections.

The group excels at run-blocking, and Florida State topped 2,600 yards and 40 touchdowns on the ground for a second consecutive season. Factoring out yards lost to sacks, FSU is rushing for more yards per carry against FBS teams this season than Auburn.

The question — if there is one — for Floirida State is in its pass protection. The Seminoles have allowed a sack on 6.7 percent of passing attempts, which ranks 83rd nationally, and 13 of the 29 sacks allowed have came in the last five games.

While those numbers might be a cause for concern against an stout Auburn defensive front (28 sacks, tied for third in SEC), two factors mitigate any perceived struggles.

For one, teams have blitzed Florida State often in hopes of rattling quarterback Jameis Winston, as 36 percent of his throws come against the blitz. Occasionally they’ve gotten to him, with 12 sacks when rushing five or more defenders, according to ESPN Stats & Info. More often, however, he burns them. Winston is completing 71 percent of his passes against the blitz, with 20 TDs and three interceptions.

The second issue is Winston’s desire to complete the deep ball. The redshirt freshman won the Heisman Trophy by being aggressive, but he admits there are times he needs to check down and get rid of the ball quicker rather than asking his line to hold blocks for a few extra seconds. The payoff to the approach, however, has been an array of big plays. Winston leads the nation in yards per attempt (10.9) and only LSU’s Zach Mettenberger has a higher percentage of completions gain 15 yards or more than Winston (43 percent). Winston is tough against pressure, completing 62 percent of his throws when hit or hurried — nearly double the average for a quarterback from a BCS automatic-qualifying conference. Even getting him into third-and-long situations doesn’t help much; he’s an absurd 16-of-21 with 15 first downs on third-and-10 or longer.

Auburn’s defensive line: When Auburn last won the national championship in 2010, it had an above-average defense, but it was a defense that featured a dominant front line with All-American defensive tackle Nick Fairley and veterans Antoine Carter, Zach Clayton and Mike Blanc. The 2010 Tigers also had highly-touted freshman defensive end Corey Lemonier, who is now a rookie with the San Francisco 49ers.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstAuburn freshman Carl Lawson had four sacks this season.
This year’s Auburn team is similar. The defense has struggled at times this season, but its strength is up front on the defensive line.

The star is defensive end Dee Ford, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss and 17 quarterback hurries. A senior, Ford missed the first two games with an injury but has since recorded a sack in seven of Auburn’s last 11 games. He’s a different type of animal than Fairley, but an animal nonetheless.

The rest of the line also has its share of veterans with senior Nosa Eguae and juniors Gabe Wright, LaDarius Owens and Ben Bradley. Eguae, who moved inside to tackle midway through the season, started in the 2010 BCS title game.

And then there are the freshmen. The trio of Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel is as good a collection of young defensive linemen as there is in college football. Lawson, the nation’s No. 2 player coming out of high school in the 2013 recruiting class, leads the group with four sacks.

Fairley was dominant in the 2010 game as Auburn’s defensive line controlled the line against a smaller, quicker Oregon team. That likely won’t be the case this time around against a Florida State offensive line that’s much stronger and much more impressive, but the key to stopping the Seminoles will still begin and end with the front four. Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will rely on his line to get pressure on Winston, knowing how good the Heisman Trophy winner has been against the blitz this season.

Hale: Edge to Florida State

Ostendorf: Toss-up

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