- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOOVER, Ala. -- At SEC media days, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn confirmed the worst -- sophomore defensive end Carl Lawson had indeed undergone ACL surgery on the knee that he injured the last week of spring practice.
Lawson waited until the first week of May to have the surgery, and now, the Auburn coaches are hoping to get him back "toward the end of the year."
"That's yet to be determined," Malzahn said of Lawson's return date. "But he is an unbelievable worker. He's a physical specimen, put together extremely well. He's very determined, so we'll see where that goes."
The former five-star recruit, ranked No. 2 overall in the 2013 class, was in line to replace top pass-rusher Dee Ford this fall. Ford led the team with 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss last season, but Lawson showed glimpses of greatness when he got the opportunity. As a freshman, he was second on the team with four sacks.
However, it's time for Auburn to move on. If the Tigers get him back for the last two, three, four games, it would be a huge lift, but they have to worry about how to replace his production prior to his return, if he comes back at all.
Senior LaDarius Owens is already penciled in at one of the two starting defensive end spots. He started 12 games a season ago, and, though he missed all of spring practice, he's expected back for the beginning of fall camp.
The question will be who starts opposite of Owens and who else will be in the rotation once the season gets underway.
Elijah Daniel, sophomore: If not for Lawson, Daniel might have been talked about more last season. He too was a top recruit coming out of high school, ranked No. 34 overall in the ESPN 300, and he wasn't far behind his teammate with 2.5 sacks as a freshman. The plan was for the duo to play opposite each other down the road, but with Lawson out for the foreseeable future, the time is now for Daniel. Can he step out of Lawson's shadow and make his own mark?
DaVonte Lambert, junior: Fans don't know his name yet, but Lambert might prove to make the biggest impact of anyone in Auburn's 2014 recruiting class. He arrived on campus last month, meaning he'll have to pick up the defense in a hurry, but there's no doubting his physical tools. The 6-foot-2, 275-pound junior college transfer was the top-rated defensive lineman in the ESPN JC50, and he's eager to get on the field for the Tigers.
Andrew Williams, freshman: As the other newcomer on this list, Williams has yet to go through an organized practice with his new team. He was in high school just two months ago. Don't be fooled, though. That didn't stop Lawson and Daniel from making an impact their freshman season, and Williams could be on a similar path. The Georgia native practically lives in the weight room, which should help ease his transition at the next level.
Gabe Wright, senior: The Auburn coaching staff experimented with Wright at defensive end this spring due to injuries and a lack of depth at the position, but nobody thought it would stick. That sentiment has since changed with Lawson's injury, and there's a chance the so-called "Rhino Package," with Wright on the edge, will be used more often than not.
Montravius Adams, sophomore: Wright wasn't the only defensive tackle to try his hand on the edge this spring. Adams, who measures in at 6-foot-4, 306 pounds, took reps at defensive end, and Malzahn mentioned his name, along with Wright's, as a player who could help fill the void left by Lawson's injury.
The early leader in the clubhouse is Daniel because he has the experience to go along with the talent, and both Wright and Adams are better suited for defensive tackle. However, fall camp will be critical for the newcomers, specifically Lambert. If he can pick up the defense and impress the coaches, he has as good a chance as anybody to start the season opener.
Regardless of who starts, expect Ellis Johnson and Rodney Garner to rotate a lot of bodies throughout the game and use a variety of packages. The key will be generating a pass rush, an area in which they struggled last season when Ford wasn't on the field.
The loss of Lawson shouldn't be understated -- the coaches will try to get him back as quickly as possible -- but there are enough capable bodies to make do without him.
2dSam Khan and Greg Ostendorf