AUBURN, Ala. -- Ken Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker spent last season in a nice situation for freshmen.
They watched and learned from Auburn’s sideline, occasionally getting on the field in low-stress situations, an ideal way to ease into a college career.
With the team’s three top defensive tackles from last year gone, however, including Lombardi Award winner Nick Fairley, their time to shine is suddenly here.
“It’s very, very exciting,” Carter said. “It’s not really nerve-wracking. You’ve got to step up now.”
Never miss a local story.
Few positions on the Tigers’ roster lost as much production as defensive tackle. Fairley was a force in the middle, his 60 tackles, 24 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks not likely to be reproduced by one person for quite some time.
But there were more departures. Zach Clayton was a steady presence at the other tackle position, quietly taking on double teams to free up Fairley. Mike Blanc, another senior, was a bull rusher who found his niche in passing situations. The two combined for 54 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks.
Carter and Whitaker, two four-star signees from 2010, had 13 tackles as a pair.
Talk about turnover.
“It’s a work in progress,” Auburn coach Chizik said. “They are really working hard, and they’re really trying to come on. The nature of that position really entails you get down in there and get dirty and just get the experience in there. It’s a whole different world that you can’t get used to until you’ve done it enough and it becomes second nature.”
Carter has the biggest shoes to fill. The Greenville, Ala., product is working in Fairley’s spot, although it will be unrealistic to match the Lombardi winner’s production.
“I think it would be tough for anybody,” new defensive line coach Mike Pelton said. “You don’t replace a guy like Nick. You just do the best with the guys you have. You don’t ask a Kenny Carter to be a Nick Fairley. You ask him to be Kenny Carter. You ask the group, ‘Are we going to do it collectively as a group?’”
Still, somebody has to start in Fairley’s place at the three technique. Carter is built differently from Fairley, at 287 pounds and 6-foot-4½. That’s tall for a defensive tackle, meaning Carter has to work on keeping his pads low.
Although he might not duplicate Fairley’s production, he is mimicking some of the former star’s techniques.
“When Nick got his feet on the ground, it was ‘go,’ ” Carter said.
“I’m just trying to do the same thing. You just get your first step on the ground and shoot your hands. We’re trying to get hands on them and get penetration.”
Whitaker, from Warner Robins, Ga., has worked at the other tackle position. He is the bigger of the two at 6-foot-3, 310 pounds and because of his position will take on more double teams.
Despite the increased role, Whitaker thinks the pressure is the same.
“I think urgency is the word for every year,” he said. “You’ve just got to keep working. The only way I know how to get ready for something is to work my butt off every chance I get. And by the time September comes, I should be 10 times better than I am now.”
Auburn has few options behind Carter and Whitaker. Derrick Lykes and Jamar Travis are juniors who haven’t done much to distinguish themselves. Highly-ranked signee Gabe Wright of Carver High in Columbus figures to be in the mix, but he won’t arrive until the summer.
Until then, it’s Carter’s and Whitaker’s chance to make an impression.
“We’re going to be young up front,” Carter said, “but I think we’re going to do well.”