Editor's note: The 2013 season is in the books. Any underclassmen eligible for the NFL draft have decided whether to return to school or pursue a pro career. And national signing day is drawing closer by the day. With that in mind, Auburn beat writer Ryan Black breaks down the team's 2014 roster, going position-by-position and giving his take on each spot's future. The series continues with the Tigers' defensive tackles.
Who's Staying: Gabe Wright, senior: Played in all 14 games (11 starts); 31 tackles (16 solo, 15 assisted), 8.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 9 quarterback hurries, fumble recovery
Montravius Adams, sophomore: Played in 13 games; 20 tackles (10 solo, 10 assisted), 1.5 TFLs, sack, 7 QBHs
Angelo Blackson, senior: Played in all 14 games; 16 tackles (six solo, 10 assisted), 3 TFLs, 0.5 sacks, 6 QBHs, forced fumble
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Ben Bradley, senior: Played in all 14 games; 14 tackles (six solo, eight assisted), 2 TFLs, sack, 5 QBHs
JaBrian Niles, junior: Appeared in three games; two tackles (one solo, one assisted), TFL, sack
Tyler Nero, sophomore: Appeared in one game; one tackle (assisted), QBH
Jeff Whitaker, senior: Sat out last season with knee injury
Who's Leaving: Nosa Eguae: Played in all 14 games (12 starts); 22 tackles (14 solo, eight assisted), 5.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 6 QBHs, 1 blocked kick
Who's Coming In: Devaroe Lawrence: 18 tackles (4.5 for loss), 3.5 sacks (Numbers from past season at Georgia Military College in Milledgeville, Ga.)
Dontavius Russell: 34 tackles (eight solo, 26 assisted), 4.5 tackles for loss; no senior stats available for this player (Numbers from past season at Carrollton High School in Carrollton, Ga.)
Outlook: Auburn should be a formidable force up front next fall.
Alliteration aside, there's no question this should be one of the best units on the team, if not deserving of the top spot. The Tigers are only losing one player from last year's rotation in Eguae, and even that comes with a cavaet, as he was only shifted between tackle and end midway through the season. In his three seasons up to that point, Eguae had never played inside.
Even with Eguae's graduation, Auburn will bring back a quartet of seniors in Wright, Blackson, Bradley and Whitaker. Wright, a Columbus native, finally had the kind of season he (and many others) had been expecting of the Carver High School product. Ironically, his tackle total last year (31) matched the number he tallied in his first two years combined. The 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks also set single-season personal-bests for Wright. With one more season to work with defensive line coach Rodney Garner and brimming with confidence from last year's breakout campaign, Wright should be every bit as productive in his final season on the Plains.
Bradley was one of the defense's pleasant surprises. No one made more strides under strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell, as the Norcross High School graduate dropped more than 36 pounds from his arrival last January to fall camp in August, going from 322 pounds to 288. That improved stamina evinced itself on the field, as Bradley earned more and more playing time as last season progressed.
Blackson has every attribute one would want in a defensive tackle at the next level, from his physical tools to his size (6-foot-4, 310 pounds). With a big senior season, he could position himself nicely on many teams draft boards.
And Whitaker's return can't be understated, as many teammates and coaches view the Warner Robins native as the leader of the defense — and possibly the entire team.
As talented as the upperclassmen noted above are, it's possible that the most naturally gifted lineman is Adams. After a solid freshman season, far more will be expected of the 5-star recruit in 2014. With his uncanny athletic ability, veteran leadership to lean on and another year of Garner's coaching, Adams will develop into a force to be reckoned with — and it will likely happen sooner rather than later. It would shock no one if he doubles his numbers in every statistical category next year.
Nero and Niles saw limited playing time last season, but one thing working in their favor going forward is that Garner uses such a deep rotation. He'll give the duo every opportunity to make it on to the field this fall; the downside for them, of course, is that Garner will give the two newcomers (Lawrence and Russell) that same chance.
Hey, no one ever said cracking into one of the deepest units on the Tigers would be easy.