AUBURN, Ala. — Ted Roof was blunt in his assessment of why redshirt freshman Nosa Eguae jumped past senior Michael Goggans to start at one of Auburn’s defensive end positions last Saturday.
“Our decision is based on performance,” the defensive coordinator said, pulling no punches. “Anytime there’s competition, that’s the kind of environment you want to create. And it’ll make everybody better.”
So far, that appears to be true for a defensive line that has been the strongest part of the Auburn defense.
The Tigers’ front four brutalized South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia and neutralized freshman phenom running back Marcus Lattimore in a 35-27 win last week.
Auburn had three sacks and 15 quarterback hurries in addition to holding the SEC’s one-time second-leading rusher to 33 yards on 14 carries, mostly due to the defensive line’s efforts.
“I thought they played better,” Roof said. “But I’ve thought they’ve played better each and every week.”
Through four games, the Tigers’ linemen have accounted for 9.5 of the team’s 11 sacks, a number that’s tied for fourth in the SEC and 22nd nationally. They’ve allowed 106.5 rushing yards per game, trailing only two SEC teams.
The starting four has been a big reason. Tackle Nick Fairley has been in the opposing backfield all year, leading the SEC in tackles for a loss with 8.5.
Head coach Gene Chizik called senior tackle Zach Clayton’s play “unheralded” but strong, and rush end Antoine Carter is second on the team in sacks (3) and TFLs (5) and tied for the lead in quarterback hurries (12).
Eguae is the newest addition after beating out Goggans, who has 21 career starts. Eguae sat out his first year on the Plains after suffering a foot injury on the eve of the season. But he drew rave reviews during the preseason from defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who happily declared the 6-foot-2, 258-pound Mansfield, Texas, product his “secret weapon.”
Eguae, who finished with five tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss and a half a sack against South Carolina, has remained humble during his rise up the depth chart.
“I just try to use it as stepping stones,” Eguae said. “Every week getting better, just to become the player that I’m trying to be. … For me it’s gaining coach Rocker’s trust. Just to be able to be in those types of situations in the fourth quarter of games when it’s really getting down and dirty.”
Auburn’s success has been a result of more than just its starters, however. The Tigers have substituted liberally on the defensive line, with seven players getting at least double digit snaps against South Carolina.
“Last year you could see we just didn’t have that much depth,” Eguae said. “We’ve been able to rotate, so fourth quarter, we’re fresh. We can rush that passer if we need to, or if it’s a big-time fourth-and-1, we can make the stop that we need.”
Tackle Mike Blanc, a one-time starter, came off the bench for 29 of the defense’s 57 snaps, finishing with seven tackles and a fumble recovery to earn SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors.
Freshman end Corey Lemonier stepped in for Carter, who left briefly after getting nicked up in the second quarter, and registered his first career sack, taking down a scrambling Garcia.
Auburn used to wait for favorable field position to put in its second-string linemen. That’s no longer the case.
“When it’s your time, it’s your time,” Roof said.
It’s part of a fresh outlook for the defensive line, where playing time isn’t taken for granted. The backups aren’t considered stand-ins and the starters aren’t entrenched.
“Coach Rocker doesn’t let us relax,” Eguae said. “You’re either going to ball or you’re not going to play.”
Notes: Cam Newton was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week and Davey O’Brien Quarterback of the Week after accounting for 334 yards and five touchdowns against South Carolina. … Auburn’s Oct. 9 game at Kentucky will start at 7:30 p.m. and be televised by ESPN or ESPN2.