LAGRANGE, Ga. — Rodney Garner is notoriously demanding of his players.
Reflecting on the spring, however, Auburn’s defensive line coach admitted his unit “made some progress.” But they could have made far more, Garner said, had his players not had to deal with so many injuries — particularly on the perimeter. Sophomore defensive end Elijah Daniel tweaked his groin on the first drill of the opening practice. Fellow sophomore end Carl Lawson bruised his knee during the final week of practice, forcing him to sit out the A-Day game.
And then there was LaDarius Owens, who started 12 games at right end last year. He sat out the entire spring with an injury to his right foot.
“I was really looking forward to having the opportunity to work with him, but it’s just unfortunate,” Garner said. “But with the new rules (that allow coaches up to eight hours of contact per week with players) that go in effect this summer, hopefully we can take advantage of that and be ahead of schedule. That’s the whole goal.”
Garner highlighted one positive that came out of the injury-plagued spring: Tackles Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams proved they could play end, something they might have to do in the season opener.
“Based on the different personalities of the different teams that you play, you want to have different packages,” Garner said. “We open with Arkansas, which is a heavy, two- and three-tight end team. You want to be able to play big personnel, and I feel those two guys can actually give us some quality reps at end against those types of football teams.”
Just as important, neither Wright nor Adams had any problem when they shifted back to tackle.
“They both showed flashes that they can actually make plays at (end) and also be able to transition back inside and play the three-technique,” Garner said. “It just gives you the ability to mix and match as far as the rotation goes.”
And it’s a rotation that Garner believes is far from settled, noting the Tigers “have to develop more depth.” That’s where the 2014 class figures in. Auburn is set to welcome six new linemen this fall: ends Raashed Kennion, DaVonte Lambert, Justin Thornton and Andrew Williams along with tackles Devaroe Lawrence and Dontavius Russell.
The problem is, far too many people focus on what that group will do immediately, Garner said.
Instead, they should take a long-term view of things.
“I’ve got five seniors next year and I’ve got a couple of kids that have been hurt their whole careers at Auburn, so at some point, they may have to move on. So I’m going to lose a minimum of five guys — and it’s probably going to be more than five,” he said. “It’s just an ever evolving thing and you’ve just got to just try to balance out your class and try to spread it out a little bit. To lose nine guys automatically in the course of a two-year period, that’s a significant amount, but if you throw in two or three more that could be medical, that’s 12 guys. That’s blowing up a whole room.”
As important as the six newcomers will be for the future, Garner said the Tigers’ recruiting efforts for the 2015 class is every bit as critical. He conceded that as of yet, Auburn doesn’t have a single commit from a defensive lineman in the next recruiting cycle. Not that he’s losing any sleep over it.
Considered a recruiting whiz, Garner’s message to prospects isn’t changing.
“I’m going up to the guys that can come in and play right away,” he said. “I’m on my A-list and I’m sticking with my A-list until the A-list is gone. Then we’ll figure out where to go from there.”