Auburn enters the 2016 season in unfamiliar territory.
The Tigers’ unsteady quarterback situation is far from the only significant question mark on an offense that’s traditionally been the strength of a Gus Malzahn coached team.
A mass exodus at running back combined with an inexperienced group of young wide receivers has the team looking elsewhere on the field for an identity.
The most encouraging place to look is the five-star laden front, which the coaching staff is hoping drives a defensive resurgence.
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Auburn’s depth at the position was the talk of fall camp as players on both sides of the ball marveled over the talent in coach Rodney Garner’s meeting room.
“One of the guys was like we’ve got 19 people,” Auburn defensive lineman Montravius Adams said. “I was like, ‘Man.’ When you have depth I really do think it brings out the best in everybody.”
It was the same way when the former five-star recruit joined Auburn out of Dooly County (Ga.) along with fellow five-star prospect Carl Lawson back in 2013.
“We were all pushing for starting spots and trying to be productive,” Adams said. “I just feel like that made the older guys play well.”
Auburn recruited well at the position in the latest cycle adding five-star prospects Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown to a group featuring 2015’s top defensive recruit Byron Cowart and promising underclassmen Jeff Holland and Dontavius Russell.
Garner’s plan for a 10-man rotation isn’t some pipe dream.
“We were kind of talking about the third string group of defensive linemen that are kind of rotating in right now and we’ve got walk-ons on our offensive line that are blocking five-stars on the third string defensive line,” Auburn offensive lineman Robert Leff said. “They do have a lot of depth and I think that’s going to prove well for our defense. I’m excited to see what they can do this year.”
Auburn coaches and players aren’t going out on a limb projecting the unit to be one the better defensive lines in the SEC, but the true upside of the group could hinge on Lawson’s health.
Lawson suffered a cracked hip in the season-opener against Louisville last year. The injury followed a year spent rehabbing the torn ACL that cost him his sophomore season.
The fourth-year junior made it through spring and the early portion of fall camp injury free, but everyone around the projected NFL first round pick is just holding their breath Lawson’s collegiate career doesn’t take another turn of bad luck.
“I think he could be really special,” Garner said. “I’m praying that he’s going to have a full season where he can stay healthy. I would love to see what he can do.”
Garner hasn’t coached a player with similar competitive drive in more than a decade.
“The intangible things Carl Lawson brings to the game are unreal,” Garner said. “His attention to detail, his yearning for knowledge, taking care of his body, working on his craft — I mean I don’t even have words for it. The only guy I have that’s even comparable was (Richard) Seymour.”
Garner mentored Seymour, a former sixth overall pick of the New England Patriots when the coach was a then assistant on Georgia’s staff in the late 90’s.
With Garner understanding what Auburn needs from its defensive line, he put his players “through the fire” during fall camp to get them prepared.
The intense position coach emphasized unity even as he worked to create discord among his ranks by wearing players down physically and mentally.
“We have got to put Auburn first every single day with a purpose in mind we are trying to get better together collectively,” Garner said illustrating his point by linking his hands together. “We have to be a united force, not going to splinter the first time we hit adversity cause you know adversity comes. We have to stay together.”