AUBURN, Ala. -- Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker knew reps would be in short supply for his youngsters this month, with Auburn’s focus on getting its starters ready for the BCS title game against Oregon.
But with at least four of his linemen playing their last college game Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz., Rocker can’t help but take a peek at the future.
“Even though I know what we’re playing for, in the back of my mind I know they are our team next year,” he said. “I’ve got to make sure they’re at their best.”
The BCS championship game will be the last for senior defensive linemen Zach Clayton, Mike Blanc, Antoine Carter and Michael Goggans. It could very well be the last for junior Nick Fairley, the Lombardi Award winner who led the SEC in sacks and tackles for a loss.
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Those five combined for 154 tackles, 45.5 tackles for a loss and 19 sacks this season.
“What we said at the beginning of the season, we wanted to make sure that this season is memorable for the seniors, because it’s their last go around,” said Nosa Eguae, a redshirt freshman who is the lone starter returning next year.
For the true freshmen expected to fill the void next season -- Jeffrey Whitaker, Corey Lemonier and Kenneth Carter -- it has been a learning year.
They’ve all gotten some playing time, albeit limited, but the experience hasn’t been run-of-the mill.
“The biggest thing about it is they got to play a lot of snaps in the SEC championship, so they’ve been in the big game now,” Rocker said. “And now they’re going to be in a bigger game. I feel good about them.”
Lemonier, a high-profile recruit who chose Auburn over Florida State last Signing Day, made the biggest impact, finishing with 14 tackles and two sacks to earn Freshman All-SEC honors.
“It’s steadily improving,” said Lemonier, a prime candidate to replace Carter at rush end next year. “I’m just basically going through practice much easier because I know what to do and stuff like that and in the game it just comes naturally.”
Whitaker (7 tackles in 13 games) and Carter (6 tackles in 7 games) at the very least got their feet wet, learning the trade from an experienced trio of tackles, an important first step with few, if any, upperclassmen who will be candidates for playing time on the interior line next season.
“I got a great experience this year playing in front of big crowds and being a part of great comebacks,” Whitaker said. “It’s just something I’ve got to build on.”