Craig Sanders has appeared in 37 games at Auburn in the last three seasons.
Not a single one of those appearances included a start. That is set to change Saturday. After Dee Ford injured a ligament in his knee during the second scrimmage of fall camp, the Tigers’ starting left defensive end position was vacated for an undetermined period of time, though defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said the senior will certainly miss the season opener.
In his absence, Sanders has stepped to the fore.
“I’m excited about it because this is my first start ever in my college career,” he said following Sunday’s practice. “I want Dee back as fast as he can get back because we want that rotation. Whether it’s him starting or me starting, we want to rotate in with both of us working because we need that rotation and depth.”
Johnson said Sanders has most the most of the work he’s had with the first-team defense since Ford went down.
“Craig’s been really consistent assignment-wise,” he said. “Not many missed assignments. He’s done some pretty good things in pass rush. There’s no question I think all the additional repetitions have helped him fundamentally, but he’s done pretty well.”
It will be difficult to replace Ford’s production, however. He was the team’s top returning pass-rusher, totaling 6.5 sacks last season. Sanders said he will do his best to try to fill the void, hoping the gains he made during the offseason will carry over to this fall.
“My thing was using my hands when I was pass rushing,” he said. “With (defensive line) ‘Coach G’ (Rodney Garner) and Coach Brandon Wheeling, they have been helping me one-on-one with flipping my hips and using my hands off the ball. Since the spring actually it has improved greatly. I’m very satisfied with how it’s improved.”
He’s not the only defensive end who has made improvements. Johnson said he’s also seen growth from the Tigers’ other pass-rushers, most notably the true freshman duo of Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson.
“Elijah and Carl have some pass-rush ability that some of the other guys don’t have,” he said. “They’ve gotten a lot of work. They’re making some mistakes, some mental errors, but they’re going to have to play. And I think all this extra work has really helped them.”
Until Ford returns, however, the Tigers will mix-and-match at the two defensive end spots. Sanders said he and LaDarius Owens — who just shifted back to the defensive line after moving to linebacker this spring — have seen the majority of the reps at left end. Seniors Nosa Eguae and Ken Carter will be part of the rotation as well, along with the aforementioned freshman pair of Lawson and Daniel.
Regardless of what happens Saturday, Sanders said he just wants to be able to revel in the moment when his name is announced as part of the starting lineup.
“I’m going to be pumped,” he said. “I’ll be able to jump 10 feet in the air. It will be awesome. I’m ready. I’m really ready.”
Marcus Davis already in line for playing time
When offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee was asked which true freshman would “definitely play” Saturday, only one name came to mind: Marcus Davis. The receiver kept “showing up” in practices every time Lashlee turned around.
Eventually, it became too much for the coach to ignore.
“He’s kind of put himself in the mix for some playing time,” Lashlee said. “There’s some of those guys that are on playing time on teams as well, but he’s the one that keeps standing out the most, probably.”
What has Davis done to catch the eye of the coaching staff? Cliche as it sounds, “all the little things,” Lashlee said.
Davis’ background as a quarterback hasn’t hurt, either, as Lashlee believes that has helped for a quick transition from high school to college.
“He came in you could tell he wasn’t in the moment of, ‘Hey, I’m in college and these guys are bigger and faster,’” Lashlee said. He’s been steady. I’m not going to say he’s made a lot of ‘wow’ plays, although he’s made a few. He’s just been steady and he’s worked hard, he’s listened and he’s tried to do everything the coaches say.”
Fellow receiver Quan Bray praised the Delray Beach, Fla., native as well.
“I’ve seen him come in with (the right) mentality,” Bray said. “He’s young but he’s definitely ready to play because he’s a baller. Coach (Gus) Malzahn said it — he’s a natural all the time.”
Quick hits Johnson said hybrid safety/linebacker Justin Garrett has “looked pretty good” since he returned to practice. The junior sprained his foot during fall camp, which forced him to miss 12 straight practices. “He’s looked like the old Justin,” Johnson said. “If you need to know how he feels, you’d have to ask him. But he’s made some plays.” Lashlee said Avery Young has continued to move back and forth between tackle and guard on the offensive line. “He was tackle early, then it was guard and lately he’s been doing some of both,” Lashlee said. “We’ve had him at tackle probably the last week or so.”
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