AUBURN, Ala. — When Auburn assistant coach Rodney Garner looks at his defensive line, he sees depth.
He sees experience and leadership from his veteran players.
He also sees energy and a willingness to learn from his newcomers.
But what he does not see is a top pass rusher.
“We've got to get someone to want to step up and take ownership of being an outside rusher,” Garner said. “I feel like we've got some good interior guys, but the challenge is to develop a guy who can be winning football on the edge in this conference.”
The Tigers had that top pass rusher last season in Dee Ford, who became a first-round NFL draft pick following a 10.5-sack senior year.
Carl Lawson was widely expected to be Ford’s successor in the spot after finishing second on the team with four sacks as a true freshman.
But a spring ACL injury and surgery are expected to keep Lawson out of action for most, if not all, of the 2014 season.
Now back at square one, Garner is trying out players from all over the Tigers’ depth chart in search of a third-down menace.
The coaching staff has already moved senior Gabe Wright from defensive tackle — a position of great depth for the team — to first-team defensive end in the first two weeks of fall camp.
Elijah Daniel, another sophomore from Auburn’s 2013 recruiting class, has also received reps with the first team.
While Garner said he sees both Wright and Daniel as players more suited to play inside on third downs, he believes there is still time for them to develop that pass-rush threat.
“I definitely think Gabe can be a very good first- and second-down defensive end,” Garner said. “But in a third-and-long situation, you really need a guy who's got some juice that a Dee Ford or a Carl Lawson had. You need that guy who can get that tackle set deep and help get that quarterback off the spot.”
Auburn’s youngest defensive ends could get the chance to showcase their skills off the edge this season as true freshmen.
One true freshman who has impressed his new teammates is Andrew Williams, a four-star Georgia native who committed to Auburn on national signing day.
“Andrew really stood out to me,” senior defensive tackle Angelo Blackson said. “He’s a young guy, but he's so powerful. Like a lot of them, he's just got to get into the playbook and being able to learn the system.”
Former three-star end Raashed Kennion has also grabbed the attention of his coaches for his athleticism. At 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, Kennion brings the height and speed coaches want from the edge.
“He can run, he can bend, and he is long,” Garner said. “He can accelerate. You know, unfortunately, he's a kid you want to redshirt, but he has natural stuff. We don't know how it's going to develop, but I would say right now as a speed guy, he is the best in that young group.”
While Auburn’s newcomers are fighting to make a great first impression on the staff, returning starter LaDarius Owens is still fighting to overcome a foot injury that caused him to miss most of spring practices.
According to Garner, the former linebacker is still learning “how to flip his hips and accelerate past a guy” as a defensive end.
The Tigers are also looking at Cassanova McKinzy — the projected starter at middle linebacker — to be that third-down pass rusher.
However, the staff is not contemplating making a permanent move for McKinzy, who had experience in rushing the quarterback from high school.
“He's gotten up to around 250, maybe a little more,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “He's still one of the quicker kids we've got. He can flip his hips and make the turn, he can do a lot of things (as a pass rusher) but he doesn't know how to do them right now. So we've got to get him more repetitions at that."
From veteran defensive linemen to players trying out new positions, Garner said he likes the energy he has seen in the competition for the pass rusher role.
But with less than 20 days left before the season opener against Arkansas, Garner is ready to see a definitive answer.
“I'm seeing them push each other altogether,” Garner said. “The attitude, the approach to work and the willingness to be coached — I've been pleased with that. We just need that guy to step up and separate themselves.”