SEC: Elijah Daniel

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.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstCarl Lawson's absence at defensive end will be felt, but Auburn has capable bodies ready to fill in.
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.

The candidates

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.

Analysis

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.

Second-year stars: Auburn

June, 4, 2014
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In 2013, the freshmen of the SEC were truly fabulous.

Hunter Henry and Alex Collins were impact players at Arkansas. Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche were spectacular for Ole Miss. And who can forget the play of Vernon Hargreaves III, Chris Jones and A'Shawn Robinson?

[+] EnlargeMontravius Adams
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMontravius Adams burst onto the scene early last season but failed to produce much the rest of the 2014 campaign.
But standout rookies aren’t easy to come by. More often it takes some time to make a transition from high school to college, and in Year 2 we generally see the biggest jump in production from players.

With that in mind, we’re taking a team-by-team look at the players who didn’t quite break through as freshmen but could see their stock skyrocket with as sophomores.

Next up: Auburn

Class recap: Before Gene Chizik was fired, he and his staff had put together a strong recruiting class at Auburn. It was up to Gus Malzahn, who was hired in December, to try and keep it intact. The new staff saw in-state stars Reuben Foster and Dee Liner flip to Alabama, but they were able to keep defensive end Carl Lawson, the nation’s No. 2 prospect, and the majority of other recruits who had already committed. Malzahn also picked up a late commitment from junior college quarterback Nick Marshall who turned out to be a critical piece to Auburn’s turnaround this past season.

Second-year star: DT Montravius Adams (6-foot-4, 306 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Ranked No. 13 overall in the ESPN 300, Adams just missed out on five-star status. The Vienna, Ga., product was the No. 3 player in the Peach State and the No. 2 defensive tackle nationally.

2013 in review: Nobody will forget Adams running onto the field for the first time against Washington State and sacking the quarterback on his first-ever play. It ignited a defense that looked slow and stagnant before that, and it instantly created lofty expectations for the freshman star. However, that turned out to be Adams’ only sack of the season. He played in 13 games but finished with just 20 tackles, 1.5 for loss and that lone sack.

2014 potential: Maybe Adams wasn’t ready for the rigors of a college football season. His playing time decreased as the year went on, and with it, so did his impact on the game. He now has been at Auburn for almost a full year, and he had a chance to go through spring practice for the first time. Everybody is talking about Lawson as a breakout star for 2014, but what’s stopping Adams from becoming a dominant force up front? The talent is there, and with Nosa Eguae moving on, there’s now an opportunity, too. He has had star written all over him since he arrived on the Plains, but it’s up to him when he fulfills that potential.

Also watch out for: Adams and Lawson are both in line for huge sophomore seasons, but don’t sleep on fellow defensive lineman Elijah Daniel. He was fourth on the team in sacks (2.5) as a freshman and should get a boost in playing time. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson showed he was more than capable of filling in for Marshall when needed last year, and the coaches might try and use him even more this year. Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens are both expected to contribute to one of the deeper wide receiver corps in the SEC. Davis made some clutch catches last year while Stevens hauled in two touchdowns in the spring game. And knowing that both the starting kicker and punter were going to be seniors, Malzahn addressed each position in the 2013 class with Daniel Carlson at kicker and Jimmy Hutchinson at punter. The two redshirt freshmen are expected to start for the Tigers this fall.
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.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- Before spring practice, we previewed Auburn’s top five position battles. Now that spring is over and the players have had a chance to compete against each other, who has the upper hand at each position?

Position battle No. 1: Star

[+] EnlargeRobenson Therezie
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsRobenson Therezie looks like he'll be the starter at the Star position when the season starts.
This was Robenson Therezie’s job before spring practice, and it’s still Therezie’s job. The senior defensive back played through a broken bone in his hand, an injury he suffered the first week, and although he didn’t wow anybody, he also didn’t do anything to give the job away either. Justin Garrett and Mackenro Alexander will continue to push for playing time behind him, and there’s been talk that safety Joshua Holsey might get a look there in fall camp when he returns from injury, but the coaches feel confident with Therezie. He’s still improving against the run and in man-to-man coverage, but he’s a spark plug for this Auburn defense. Time and time again last year, he came up with a big play in a key situation.

Position battle No. 2: Left tackle

The battle at left tackle is ongoing. Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller took turns taking reps with the first-team offense throughout the spring, and though neither has emerged as the starter, both had strong springs. Coleman, a natural at left tackle, came out with the first group for the opening drive of the spring game. He’s stronger than his counterpart and a better run blocker. However, Miller has the advantage in pass protection and has more game experience, making 14 starts at right tackle the past two years. The good news is that Auburn has two capable candidates that could start for the majority of teams in college football. The bad news is that we won’t know a decision until fall camp at the earliest.

Position battle No. 3: Defensive end

If Auburn’s season opener was last month, there’s a strong possibility that Gabe Wright would have been the starter at defensive end -- the same 284-pound Wright who played all of last year at defensive tackle. That’s how depleted the position was this spring. Returning starter LaDarius Owens missed all of spring practice with a foot injury while sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel, the favorites to take over for Dee Ford on the other side, also sat out at some point due to injury. Still, there was progress made. By all accounts, Lawson had a terrific spring despite missing the spring game and improved his all-around game. Daniel played in the spring game and finished with three tackles, 2.5 for loss and one sack. Wright might see some time at end next fall, but it’s more likely he stays inside once everybody is healthy.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCorey Grant showed his big-play abilities this spring.
Position battle No. 4: Running back

Tre Mason might be gone, but Auburn showed this spring that it has plenty of talent returning at the position. No, a starter wasn’t named, and if it’s anything like last year, the team’s go-to back might not emerge until three or four games into the season. But Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant proved that they are each more than able to take over for the former Heisman Trophy finalist. Artis-Payne had 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game while Grant flashed his big-play ability with 128 yards and a touchdown on just five carries. Throw in redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and ESPN 300 star Racean Thomas, who is scheduled to arrive later this month, and it’s once again a position of strength for the Tigers.

Position battle No. 5: Cornerback

The spring game has not been kind to Jonathon Mincy recently. He was ejected from last year’s game for targeting, and he didn’t play at all in this year’s game. Fortunately, that doesn’t affect his status as the team’s No. 1 cornerback. As long as he’s healthy, he’s expected to move over and replace Chris Davis as the boundary corner. On the other side, Jonathan Jones still looks to be the favorite, but Trovon Reed turned heads with his performance this spring. The former wide receiver had three tackles, one for a loss and two pass breakups in the spring game. Expect even more competition in fall camp when Holsey returns from injury and when incoming freshmen Kalvaraz Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin arrive on campus.
Before the beginning of spring practice, we made five predictions about the defending SEC champs. Some made us look smart. Others, not so much. Let’s take a look back:

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesCan Nick Marshall get Auburn going even faster?
Prediction No. 1: No slowing down

Gus Malzahn’s offense is no longer fast. It’s #Auburnfast. The coaches have begun using the hashtag on Twitter for everything from players’ 40-yard-dash times to their recruiting routes in New York City (see @rhettlashlee). Either way, it was evident from the first practice of spring that Auburn wanted to go even faster than last season. The entire second period was dedicated to pace, and the first, second and third-team units all worked on running the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. The key will be quarterback Nick Marshall and his comfort level with the offense. On Wednesday, Malzahn said Marshall was a lot more reactive this spring and that it was coming more natural to him. That’s a good sign for Auburn and a bad sign for SEC defenses.

Prediction No. 2: No Ford, no problem

It’s still a little early to say the defensive line will be better in 2014 without sack leader Dee Ford, but that’s only because we never got a chance to see a healthy group up front during spring practice. Injuries riddled the defensive line, forcing players such as Montravius Adams and Gabe Wright to move from tackle to end. Rising sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel both missed time while defensive end LaDarius Owens, a starter last season, missed the entire spring with a foot injury. When everybody is healthy and when the six 2014 signees on the defensive line arrive this summer, it will be a deeper, more talented group than what Auburn had a year ago.

Prediction No. 3: More balance on offense

This one depends solely on Marshall’s progression as a passer, but if the spring game was any indication, Malzahn intends to throw it quite a bit more this season. Marshall went 13-of-22 for 236 yards and four touchdowns in the first half, and afterwards, Malzahn said the emphasis was obviously on throwing the football as it had been throughout the spring. Junior college transfer D’haquille Williams looked as good as advertised in the spring game, catching five passes for 88 yards and a touchdown. He adds another target to what was already a deep stable of wide receivers. Auburn will still be a run-first football team. That’s who it is, and that’s what Malzahn wants to do. But it’s not crazy to think that Marshall will average 10 or more passing attempts per game this season than he did last season.

Prediction No. 4: Open audition at LT

The prediction was that Auburn would wait until the fall to name a starter at left tackle, and to nobody’s surprise, it held true. Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller are veteran guys. They don’t need to know who the starter is going to be until the week before the first game. They’re going to keep plugging away like they always do. The only real takeaway from the spring that was that Auburn has two left tackles good enough to start, and if they can start on that offensive line, they’re likely good enough to start for the majority of teams in college football. There was also a thought that Avery Young would see time at left tackle, but he stayed on the right side for the duration of spring practice.

Prediction No. 5: Breakout candidates

Did we hit a home run with Daniel and Peyton Barber as our breakout candidates? No. But we didn’t strike out either. Daniel missed part of spring with a groin injury, but he returned and quietly had a strong spring game. The sophomore defensive end finished with three tackles, 2.5 for a loss, one sack and one quarterback hurry. Barber earned rave reviews from his coaches and teammates throughout the spring, but he injured his ankle on his first carry of A-Day and missed the rest of the game. He went 10 yards on his lone carry, showing good feet and a good burst, but also fumbled at the end of the run. Looking back, the breakout player of the spring had to be junior college safety Derrick Moncrief, who took advantage of an opportunity and carved out a role in the secondary.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Gabe Wright isn’t a defensive end. At 6-foot-3 and 284 pounds, he simply doesn’t fit the bill. He’s too big, too valuable a space-eater inside at defensive tackle. Moving him to end would be like chasing a sports car with a tank. Some things just don’t make sense. Some players just aren’t built to play in space.

Yet there he is during practice this spring, lining up on the edge of the defensive line, pinning his ears back and rushing the passer. In doing his best Carl Lawson impression, Wright has gotten some fans on The Plains excited. But, as defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson cautions everyone: “I don’t foresee that being permanent.”

Carl Lawson, Gabe Wright
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Gabe Wright believes he'd be an effective defensive end in certain situations after getting reps there this spring.
Sorry, folks. The so-called “Rhino Package” won’t be an every down occurrence this fall, though the imagery in itself is something to root for -- plumes of dust, the screech of fans in the distance, the target of the hunt a helpless SEC quarterback named Brandon Allen or Dak Prescott or Dylan Thompson.

Wright and fellow tackle Montravius Adams aren’t the new wave of roughly 300-pound ends, though. They’re tackles through and through. Their time spent at end this spring has been only by necessity, making up for a shortened rotation of ends as Dee Ford and Craig Sanders were lost to graduation. Auburn took another hit when LaDarius Owens broke his foot, Keymiya Harrell went down with an unspecified injury and Elijah Daniel hurt his groin, leading to one of the more perplexing out-of-context quotes of all time from Johnson: “Groins can be funny.”

When asked if Auburn was thin at end, head coach Gus Malzahn responded, "We definitely are."

On the bright side, it's making things interesting for the rest of the defensive line.

“It’s a blessing for me to get on the edge,” said Wright, who played some end in high school. “We had some guys go down, some depth issues this spring. So guys had to step up.”

The blessing, for someone like Wright, is obvious.

“Let’s see: End, you get maybe 30 percent of a double team,” he explained. “When I’m inside, I get 90 percent of a double team.”

Wright, who finished second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and third with three sacks a year ago, said that spending time at end has helped him work on his pass-rushing skills. No longer struggling for space to move in a double team, he can get off the line and either rush the edge, swim inside or go one-on-one and bull-rush an offensive lineman.

Versatility, though, might the biggest benefit to having both Wright and Adams at end this spring. When opposing offenses go into jumbo packages, expect to see a few more big bodies along the defensive line this season.

“I think it does nothing but help us moving forward,” Malzahn said.

Said Wright: “The fact that we can maybe go four D-tackles at one point, that just amazes me. It’s like, What do you do? We can bull-rush the tackles and we can bull-rush the ends.”

When asked point blank whether he genuinely expected to play outside, Wright hedged his bets.

“When we do have teams like Arkansas, Alabama, LSU -- and this is not what coaches have told me -- I just believe it will be a factor,” he said. “You’ve got two-, three-tight-end sets. Why not be able to put a D-tackle out there?”

Whether he's at end or tackle, one thing will remain the same: Defensive line coach Rodney Garner will be there in his ear shouting words of, say, encouragement.

“All the same,” Wright said of Garner's colorful vocabulary. “It’s all 'exciting', 'exquisite' and 'extraordinary.' ”

And expletive?

“Expletive,” he said. “Very expletive.”

SEC's lunch links

March, 25, 2014
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Spring practice is in full swing at several SEC schools. Let's take a look at some of the headlines from around the league:

• Might Alabama pick up its offensive pace under Lane Kiffin? Not likely.

• Mississippi State's Chris Jones feeds off raw energy, but he's working to improve his technique this spring.

• Despite the prospect of more pass blocking in Auburn's 2014 offense, the offensive linemen's mindset remains unchanged.

• Running backs Mack Brown and Kelvin Taylor reeled off big runs during Florida's practice on Monday.

• What might 2014 look like for Arkansas running back Alex Collins? Sporting Life Arkansas takes a look.

• Praise continues to pour in for Ole Miss offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil after a standout freshman season.

• Darius English had one directive from South Carolina's coaching staff this offseason: add weight to his 6-foot-7 frame.

• Former Vanderbilt receiver Chris Boyd found it difficult to blend in after his dismissal from the program last year.

• Athlon ranks the top 40 players from the SEC during the BCS era.

• Defensive lineman Elijah Daniel sat out as Auburn ran through its fourth practice of the spring on Tuesday.

Opening spring camp: Auburn

March, 17, 2014
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Schedule: The reigning SEC champions will begin their title defense on Tuesday when they open spring practice in Auburn, Ala. They will work out every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday before wrapping up with the A-day scrimmage on Saturday, April 19 at 1 p.m. ET.

What’s new: After a complete overhaul of the coaching staff last offseason, Auburn’s current coaches will all be back for a second year on the Plains. There were rumors involving head coach Gus Malzahn (University of Texas, Cleveland Browns), as well as some of his assistants, but now that the dust has settled, they will be one of five coaching staffs in the SEC that will remain intact next season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCan Gus Malzahn and QB Nick Marshall improve on Auburn's successful last season?
On the move: Word out of Auburn is that there’s a strong possibility that wide receiver Trovon Reed moves to cornerback this spring. The former ESPN 300 star, who caught nine passes for 98 yards as a junior, hinted at the move in January via Instagram, but Malzahn refuted the rumor, calling it “premature.” The news will likely become official Monday when Malzahn holds his pre-spring news conference. The other name to watch is Johnathan Ford. There has been talk that the sophomore cornerback will return to his natural running back position, but the staff has also considered moving him to safety this spring.

On the mend: Safety Joshua Holsey injured his knee in practice just days before the Texas A&M game and missed the rest of the season. It was a costly blow to an already thin Auburn secondary, and with the loss of three seniors back there, his return next season is paramount. However, he’s questionable for spring and will likely not participate in any contact drills. Offensive lineman Jordan Diamond is also expected to be no-contact per Malzahn. There’s been no word on the progress of wide receiver Jaylon Denson, who tore his patellar tendon early in the season against LSU, but he’s considered doubtful for spring practice.

New faces: Auburn will have five early enrollees this spring but none bigger than wide receiver D’haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player, and he has the size, skill and potential to make an immediate impact for the Tigers. The next month will give him the opportunity to get acclimated, work with the quarterbacks and learn the offense. His teammate in junior college, Derrick Moncrief, is also expected to push for early playing time at either safety or the Star position. He’s the lone newcomer on defense.

Question marks: Auburn’s defense struggled at times last season, but it still improved under first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson. The stats prove it. However, Johnson will be the first to tell you that his unit needs to play better if the Tigers want to have any chance of duplicating last year’s success. It won’t be easy, though, as they need to replace five starters on defense including the team leader in sacks, Dee Ford, and the team leader in tackles, Chris Davis. With plenty of depth up front and budding stars like Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, the defensive line shouldn’t be a problem, but the secondary is a different story. The coaches will have to mix and match back there before reinforcements arrive this summer.

Key battle: When Greg Robinson left early for the NFL, it didn’t come as a surprise -- he’s a surefire top-five pick -- but it left a gaping hole at left tackle for Auburn. Malzahn said that offensive line coach J.B. Grimes will open it up to Shon Coleman, Robinson’s backup last fall, and Patrick Miller, a former starter at right tackle. But there’s more. The second-year coach also mentioned Avery Young and Robert Leff as possibilities to win the job. Young is the one to keep an eye on. He’s entrenched as the starter at right tackle after taking over midway through the year, but there’s a good chance the staff moves him over to left tackle at some point this spring, especially if neither Coleman nor Miller emerge as the favorite.

Breaking out: On Friday, I wrote about running back Peyton Barber and defensive end Elijah Daniel (read here), who could both emerge this spring, but junior wide receiver Ricardo Louis is another player who falls in the same category. He’s more established than the other two, finishing second on the team last season with 28 receptions for 325 yards, but he has yet to live up to his potential. With Williams now on campus, along with ESPN 300 wide receiver Stanton Truitt, it might be now or never for Louis.

Don’t forget about: On the subject of breakout performances, who can forget what Justin Garrett did last spring? He impressed the coaches so much so that he earned a starting role on Auburn’s defense heading into the fall. The problem was that he never made a start. Multiple injuries kept him off the field and prevented him from ever truly making an impact last season. The junior accepted a medical hardship and is now eager to return this spring, finally healthy. The coaches loved his versatility at the Star position, and if he can replicate what he did last spring, he could push Robenson Therezie for playing time.

All eyes on: There are plenty of talented players and key pieces on Auburn’s 2014 roster, but the Tigers will go where Nick Marshall takes them. The senior quarterback was absent last spring after transferring from junior college and arriving in the summer, but it didn’t seem to faze him during the season. He threw for 1,976 yards, rushed for 1,068 yards and combined to score 37 touchdowns. Now he’s a legitimate Heisman candidate heading into the upcoming season. The scary part is that he’s still improving as a passer. That’s the area where the coaches want to work with him this spring, but with all of his receivers back and the additions of Williams and Truitt, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t take the next step as an all-around quarterback.
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
AUBURN, Ala. -- Every year it seems more and more freshmen are playing in college football. It’s no different in the SEC. Top programs like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU have started or played first-year players in critical games this season.

The same holds true for Auburn, which signed the No. 11 recruiting class this past February. Head coach Gus Malzahn has said he’s not afraid to play freshmen right off the bat as long as they’re talented enough.

So what’s the secret behind the freshmen impact in the college football?

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsFreshman defensive end Carl Lawson had two sacks against Ole Miss.
“Physically, kids are coming out of programs -- they’ve got better strength programs -- they’re bigger, faster and stronger, naturally,” AU defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “They’re probably coached as good or better than they were, and I just think a lot of them are ready to play at that level, and we’re able to find a role for them to play.

“Some of them don’t have the competitiveness, some of them don’t have the temperament, some of them don’t have the fundaments, but heck, the physical talent -- you can look at some in high school and tell, these guys can play with us.”

Through the first five games, Auburn has already seen a number of freshmen contributions.

Defensive end Carl Lawson earned SEC freshmen of the week honors with his performance against Ole Miss last weekend. The five-star recruit finished with six tackles, including 3.5 for loss and two sacks.

Marcus Davis emerged as the go-to wide receiver when the Tigers trailed Mississippi State in the final minutes. He caught four passes for 38 yards on the game-winning drive and helped Auburn put an end to their SEC losing streak.

In the season opener, it was defensive tackle Montravius Adams who provided a much-needed spark for the defense when he entered the game and sacked the quarterback on his first play.

The Tigers are not yet to the halfway point of the season, but there are still plenty of freshmen waiting for their opportunity. If all goes well Saturday, there’s a strong possibility some of them might receive that chance against Western Carolina.

“First and foremost, we've got to go win the football game,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “And we've got to play well. But there are some guys like a Tony Stevens that you'd like to get more action. Marcus Davis is already playing more. I think a guy like an Avery Young, maybe try to get him more meaningful reps, too.”

On defense, the freshmen players who are most likely to see more action include the trio up front -- Adams, Lawson and Elijah Daniel -- cornerbacks Johnathan Ford and Kamryn Melton, and possibly Mackenro Alexander, a defensive back who recently moved to the Star position and played against Ole Miss.

“Mackenro got about nine reps to sub [Robenson Therezie], and I bet those reps, down the line, are going to help him,” Johnson said. “That’s the first time he’s had any true game experience. He did some good things. We hope in the future we can give him some rotation a little bit out there.”

But the freshmen who has received the most attention this week is quarterback Jeremy Johnson. The ESPN 300 recruit has yet to play a snap this season, but with starter Nick Marshall still questionable with a knee injury, there’s a chance the staff turns to Johnson on Saturday. He battled for the starting job during fall camp.

“We have not played him yet, and I know obviously it is getting to a point now where you have to do what is best for him and what is best for your team,” Malzahn said. “But he is still getting a lot of reps in practice and he is improving, there is no doubt.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- In 2012, the Auburn defense gave up 35 or more points in four of their last five SEC games. The Tigers were in the bottom half of the conference in most statistical categories, including total defense, sacks and interceptions. There was clearly a need for change, and the Tigers turned to some new faces, including renowned defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, to fix it.

Through two quarters Saturday, however, it looked as if Auburn’s defense still had its issues. Washington State racked up 264 yards through the air and 21 points.

[+] EnlargeMontravius Adams, Craig Sanders
AP Photo/Butch DillFreshman Montravius Adams (right) provided a spark for Auburn's defense against Washington State.
But after halftime, the AU defense clamped down. They still gave up yards to the Cougars, but they made stops when they had to, including a late interception from Robenson Therezie, and they held the potent air-raid offense to just three points. The end result was a much-needed victory, specifically for the players who were on the team last year.

“It felt great,” defensive end LaDarius Owens said. “It's been feeling great ever since the new coaching staff came in. It kind of gave us a new spirit, a new life. It felt good to see that produce us a win. It made us feel like, 'Alright, we're going at it the right way." It is something that we needed.”

Johnson knows as much as anybody how important a win like that can be to start the season. He was 0-12 last year as head coach at Southern Miss. What if Auburn had made a mistake here or there and lost the game? Would this defense revert back to old form?

“That was the most important thing that happened, in my opinion the whole night, is that when we had a chance to slip, we didn't,” Johnson said. “They stood right in there, played hard, finished the game and got it done. Obviously, they've had a problem doing that in the past.”

On Monday, Therezie was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week, an honor he earned with an outstanding performance, but when the Tigers needed a spark in the second quarter, they turned to true freshman Montravius Adams, the No. 2 defensive tackle in the country coming out of high school.

On the first play of his college career, Adams burst into the backfield and sacked the quarterback.

“I was very excited,” Adams said. “I wanted to get the team together, so me making that big play helped the team. We all came together, and I think we started clicking a lot better.”

Before the sack, Washington State had scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives, but after the play, they never reached the end zone again.

Adams wasn’t the only freshman to make an impact for Auburn’s defense on Saturday. Johnson said there were times where he saw five freshmen on the field at the same time. The most notable were the three on the defensive line -- Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson -- who rotated in throughout the game.

The trio struggled at times with various assignments, but physically looked the part.

“When they get on the field, they look like they belong on the field,” Johnson said. “They're 18-year-old freshmen playing in the SEC, but they look like they fit right in. As time goes on, they get more comfortable in our scheme and start eliminating the mental errors, I think they'll really be a lot better and be more of a contribution.”

One of the keys for the freshmen is that they weren’t at Auburn last year. They didn’t have to go through a difficult and trying season without an SEC victory. They’re all used to winning games at the high school level, so it was no different when they won this past Saturday.

“We sang the fight song when all got to the locker room,” Adams said. “Everybody was just happy. It was a great way to kick off the season and set the tone for next week.”

But for the players who were on last year’s team, the win meant even more. The freshman might have been the spark, but now the rest of the unit has more confidence going into the rest of the season.

“A win, regardless of when it comes or how you get it, it always gives you confidence and faith for the future,” Owens said.
Auburn dismissed senior safety Demetruce McNeal from the team over the weekend, and Monday, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said the Tigers would likely be without top pass rusher Dee Ford for the opener against Washington State because of a knee injury.

Ford is expected to be out for an extended period of time, but Johnson didn’t know for sure how long. For more on Ford, click here.

With Ford out, fellow senior defensive end Nosa Eguae is expected to step in, but keep an eye on freshman defensive ends Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson.

Lawson, the nation’s No. 2 player in the 2013, is projected to be the better of the two. He’s listed at 6-foot-2, 258 pounds and was called one of the most explosive players in the class by the ESPN scouts.
Auburn has announced its 2013 signing class.

New coach Gus Malzahn had a wealth of success with his first class as the Tigers' head coach, signing 23 recruits, including four ESPN 150 members. Auburn also brought in seven ESPN 300 prospects.

After No. 2 defensive end Carl Lawson (Alpharetta, Ga./Milton) opted to keep his pledge to Auburn earlier in the week, the Tigers' staff received some more very good news on the defensive side of the ball when No. 2-ranked defensive tackle Montravius Adams (Vienna, Ga./Dooly County) and No. 4 defensive end Elijah Daniel (Avon, Ind.) committed to and signed with Auburn. Daniel flipped from Ole Miss.

To view Auburn's entire 2013 signing class, click here.

Lunchtime links

February, 6, 2013
2/06/13
12:10
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While you're glued to ESPNU's national signing day coverage, check out some SEC links as you stress over college football's version of Christmas morning.

First LOI to Auburn is a flip 

February, 6, 2013
2/06/13
8:04
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A recruitment filled with twists and turns, it only seemed right for Elijah Daniel (Avon, Ind./Avon) to flip to Auburn the morning of signing day following a late visit to The Plains.

Daniel, No. 34 overall in the ESPN 150, faxed his letter to Auburn on Wednesday morning despite entering signing day as an Ole Miss commitment. He was previously committed to Clemson as well.

What is the impact of Daniel’s decision?

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