Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele received an important vote of confidence to close out his first week on the job with defensive lineman Carl Lawson announcing his plans to return for his junior season.
Lawson has plenty of reasons to come back — showing he can make it through a full season healthy is a big one — but if he wasn’t buying into the former LSU coordinator’s plans he might have decided to roll the dice in the NFL Draft.
With Lawson returning, Steele has an anchor to build his scheme around and an impact player opposing offenses have to account for on every single play.
Auburn doesn’t have too many of those.
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The coaching staff admitted as much when Lawson returned to the lineup against Ole Miss from the hip injury that cost him six weeks of the season. His numbers weren’t spectacular, but his mere presence on the line made Auburn’s defense better.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn called overcoming Lawson’s absence the most significant challenge the defense faced this season.
“He is our defensive leader,” Malzahn said. “He is our impact player. His presence — I think everyone can see it. It changes things on the field.”
Steele already faces the challenging task of teaching Auburn defenders their third new system in four years. While some of the terminology might be similar thanks to shared coaching tree with Steele and Muschamp, it still won’t be easy.
He also has a number of holes to fill having to replace an entire group of starting linebackers.
As talented as the unit featuring Justin Garrett, Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy was, it’s a far easier task than replacing someone with Lawson’s skill set.
Auburn does have a bevy of highly rated recruits coming, but Steele can’t afford to pin his hopes on first year players that need time to develop.
Coach Malzahn won’t survive another disappointing run in the SEC. The urgency heading into the next season was underlined when athletic director Jay Jacobs said there’s “no excuse” for going 6-6 at Auburn.
The most important player to Auburn’s chances at being a contender in the SEC for 2016 is one who shouted out “War Eagle” from his Twitter account Wednesday.