Auburn Tigers: Ben Bradley

This is Part II of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- There have been plenty of questions surrounding Auburn’s defensive line this offseason. How do you replace a guy like Dee Ford? Who will be the leaders now that Ford and Nosa Eguae are both gone? What should be expected of the rising sophomores? Will any of the newcomers make an impact?

Here’s a bold prediction for the spring: The defensive line will be better in 2014 than it was in 2013.

How can that be when Auburn is losing a combined 20 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks from Eguae and Ford? Three reasons -- star power, experience and depth. The line was the strength of the defense a year ago, and it’s expected be the strength again this season.

The key will be that trio of rising sophomores -- Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson -- who should evolve from promising young rookies to the dominant defensive linemen that Auburn fans have grown accustomed to seeing over the years.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstCarl Lawson showed he could be Auburn's next defensive star after a solid freshman season.
All three came to Auburn as highly ranked recruits, and though they had their moments last fall, it was clear they were still raw. As spring practice approaches, they have had a chance to play in the SEC, and they’ve been able to work out in a major college weight room. They’re ready, both physically and mentally, to take the next step.

Lawson, in particular, could be in line for a huge spring as he looks to replace Ford at one of the defensive end spots.

“That guy is going to be a mammoth player by the time he leaves here,” Eguae said of Lawson, a former five-star recruit.

The talent and star power might be in the sophomore class, but experience cannot be taught, and Auburn has plenty of it. With defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker expected to return for a fifth season, the Tigers will feature five scholarship seniors on their defensive line.

It’s a group that includes LaDarius Owens and Gabe Wright, two starters from the BCS title game. They might not be as good as Eguae and Ford just yet, but the duo still combined for 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last season. Former junior college transfer Ben Bradley is another senior to watch. He played well early in the season but faded late.

Auburn also signed six defensive linemen in 2014 to add even more depth to an already deep unit. The three most likely to contribute next year are juco teammates DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence and ESPN 300 defensive end Andrew Williams, who waited until signing day before choosing the Tigers.

“That was a strength of ours last year,” head coach Gus Malzahn said of the defensive line. “We lost some seniors, but we really feel like we filled our needs there. We got some outstanding impact players that coach [Rodney] Garner is very excited about.”

All four starting spots on the defensive line will be up for grabs, but Garner proved last season that just because a player isn’t in the starting lineup doesn’t mean he’s not going to play. Early in the year, Auburn was rotating eight or nine bodies up front. Garner and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will have plenty of options to choose from as they put together the rotation for the season opener. It’s a pool of players that’s talented, experienced and deep.

Room to improve: Defensive line

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Editor’s note: This is Part III in a week-long series looking at Auburn’s top five position groups with room to improve.

AUBURN, Ala. -- The defensive line wasn’t bad in 2013. In fact, it was quite the contrary. The line was considered the strength of the defense, and the rotation of players up front was one of the reasons Auburn won 12 games and made the run it did. However, when you lose two starters and arguably the two most consistent players on the line, there’s still plenty of room to improve.

It starts with defensive end Dee Ford. How do you replace a player who led the team in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (14.5)? The Tigers were without him the first two games this past season, and although they won, there was a noticeable difference when Ford returned to the lineup against Mississippi State.

Carl Lawson, Gabe Wright
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsGabe Wright (90) and Carl Lawson (55) figure to be major cogs in the defensive line rotation in 2014.
The other loss up front, Nosa Eguae, isn’t as talented as Ford, but he was just as valuable in his own way. He started the season at defensive end but moved to tackle midway through the season to help the team. Eguae might not get drafted, but the intangibles and the leadership qualities he provided will be difficult to replace.

The good thing is that defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will have plenty of options to choose from. Auburn’s defensive line is as deep, if not deeper than any other position on the field. But can they sustain success, and more importantly, can they improve on last year?

Battling for No. 1: Seniors to be Gabe Wright and LaDarius Owens were both listed as starters on the depth chart for the VIZIO BCS National Championship game, so they’re obviously the favorites to crack the starting rotation in 2014. Wright led all Auburn defensive linemen with 31 tackles in the 2013 season, and Owens was right behind him with 30. Defensive tackle Angelo Blackson started 10 games as a sophomore in 2012 but lost his job this past season when Eguae moved inside. He’ll be given every opportunity to win it back this spring. Beyond that, it’s a pair of former ESPN 300 prospects who are next in line. Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams just wrapped up their freshman seasons, and they both hope to take the next step in their second seasons. Lawson, who was second on the team with four sacks, has the makings of a star.

Strength in numbers: This is where Auburn thrived last season. The coaches were able to rotate close to seven or eight players up front each game, and the line didn’t miss a beat. That not only provided valuable game experience, but it also kept the starters fresh for the fourth quarter. Junior college transfer Ben Bradley and freshman Elijah Daniel were both thrown in the mix as soon as they arrived on campus, and both responded well. Bradley, who enrolled last January, started in three games in his first season. In reality, they both belong in the above group, as they will both compete with the first group this spring. But regardless of whether or not they start, they will be counted on for depth. There’s not much depth after that. The next-most experienced player, JaBrian Niles, has played in just seven games over the last two seasons.

New on the scene: Auburn put together one of the top defensive line classes in the country a year ago. This year’s class might not rival that, but it’s still a promising group. The two most likely to compete for early playing time are junior college transfers DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence. Unlike Bradley, they weren’t able to enroll early, so they won’t go through spring ball, but they should still be ahead of the other signees physically. Lambert, in particular, has a real chance to make an early impact. He was the top-rated defensive tackle in ESPN Junior College 50 rankings. The Tigers also signed three ESPN 300 defensive linemen, headlined by defensive end Andrew Williams, who committed to Auburn on national signing day. The line should continue to be the strength of Auburn’s defense for years to come.
Editor’s note: Each day this week, Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in next Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship. The first matchup is between Florida State’s offensive line and Auburn’s defensive line.

Florida State’s offensive line: The five starters on the line for Florida State are all NFL prospects. The group is led by senior center Bryan Stork, a first-team AP All-America selection. Tackle Cameron Erving and guard Tre' Jackson were first-team All-ACC selections.

The group excels at run-blocking, and Florida State topped 2,600 yards and 40 touchdowns on the ground for a second consecutive season. Factoring out yards lost to sacks, FSU is rushing for more yards per carry against FBS teams this season than Auburn.

The question — if there is one — for Floirida State is in its pass protection. The Seminoles have allowed a sack on 6.7 percent of passing attempts, which ranks 83rd nationally, and 13 of the 29 sacks allowed have came in the last five games.

While those numbers might be a cause for concern against an stout Auburn defensive front (28 sacks, tied for third in SEC), two factors mitigate any perceived struggles.

For one, teams have blitzed Florida State often in hopes of rattling quarterback Jameis Winston, as 36 percent of his throws come against the blitz. Occasionally they’ve gotten to him, with 12 sacks when rushing five or more defenders, according to ESPN Stats & Info. More often, however, he burns them. Winston is completing 71 percent of his passes against the blitz, with 20 TDs and three interceptions.

The second issue is Winston’s desire to complete the deep ball. The redshirt freshman won the Heisman Trophy by being aggressive, but he admits there are times he needs to check down and get rid of the ball quicker rather than asking his line to hold blocks for a few extra seconds. The payoff to the approach, however, has been an array of big plays. Winston leads the nation in yards per attempt (10.9) and only LSU’s Zach Mettenberger has a higher percentage of completions gain 15 yards or more than Winston (43 percent). Winston is tough against pressure, completing 62 percent of his throws when hit or hurried — nearly double the average for a quarterback from a BCS automatic-qualifying conference. Even getting him into third-and-long situations doesn’t help much; he’s an absurd 16-of-21 with 15 first downs on third-and-10 or longer.

Auburn’s defensive line: When Auburn last won the national championship in 2010, it had an above-average defense, but it was a defense that featured a dominant front line with All-American defensive tackle Nick Fairley and veterans Antoine Carter, Zach Clayton and Mike Blanc. The 2010 Tigers also had highly-touted freshman defensive end Corey Lemonier, who is now a rookie with the San Francisco 49ers.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstAuburn freshman Carl Lawson had four sacks this season.
This year’s Auburn team is similar. The defense has struggled at times this season, but its strength is up front on the defensive line.

The star is defensive end Dee Ford, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss and 17 quarterback hurries. A senior, Ford missed the first two games with an injury but has since recorded a sack in seven of Auburn’s last 11 games. He’s a different type of animal than Fairley, but an animal nonetheless.

The rest of the line also has its share of veterans with senior Nosa Eguae and juniors Gabe Wright, LaDarius Owens and Ben Bradley. Eguae, who moved inside to tackle midway through the season, started in the 2010 BCS title game.

And then there are the freshmen. The trio of Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel is as good a collection of young defensive linemen as there is in college football. Lawson, the nation’s No. 2 player coming out of high school in the 2013 recruiting class, leads the group with four sacks.

Fairley was dominant in the 2010 game as Auburn’s defensive line controlled the line against a smaller, quicker Oregon team. That likely won’t be the case this time around against a Florida State offensive line that’s much stronger and much more impressive, but the key to stopping the Seminoles will still begin and end with the front four. Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will rely on his line to get pressure on Winston, knowing how good the Heisman Trophy winner has been against the blitz this season.

Hale: Edge to Florida State

Ostendorf: Toss-up
Auburn defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker will not return to the field this season and will receive a medical redshirt, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said on Tuesday.

Whitaker started the last two seasons for the Tigers and was expected to be an anchor on the defensive line this year before he underwent surgery on his right knee during fall camp. The senior was working his way back but will now wait and return in 2014.

"Jeff has been playing banged up the last year or so anyway," Malzahn said. "I think it will be good for him to be healthy. That is our goal -- to get him healthy for next year and have a chance to have his best season."

In 35 appearances with Auburn, Whitaker had 44 tackles, three for a loss, and a forced fumble.

The staff recently moved Nosa Eguae from defensive end to defensive tackle, and he joins a rotation that includes two-year starter Gabe Wright, junior college transfer Ben Bradley and true freshman Montravius Adams.

Malzahn also announced on Tuesday that linebacker Justin Garrett will not play this weekend because of a foot injury. He has already missed three games this season, and the Auburn coach said Garrett will be "week-to-week" going forward.

On a more positive note, linebacker Cassanova McKinzy returned to practice Tuesday after suffering a neck injury over the weekend. He had to be carted off the field.

"That was a scary deal, and it looks like it is going to turn out good," Malzahn said.

The Tigers will host Western Carolina on Saturday at 1 p.m. CT.

AUBURN, Ala. -- When Ole Miss was shutout by No. 1 Alabama last week, everybody chalked it up to the Crimson Tide’s stingy defense. Quarterback Bo Wallace and the Rebels would surely get back on track against Auburn and the SEC’s 13th-ranked defense, right?

Wrong.

The Auburn defense responded. After giving up 456 yards and 35 points to LSU two weeks ago, the Tigers took a week off and returned with a chip on their shoulder. They produced six sacks and two interceptions to help the Tigers upend Ole Miss, 30-22.

“There’s no doubt that they improved from LSU to here, against an explosive offense, and I’m very proud of them,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.

It started up front. Auburn had as many sacks Saturday as it did all of last season. Veterans Dee Ford and Gabe Wright each had two sacks apiece, and true freshman Carl Lawson, the No. 2 player in the 2013 ESPN 300, added two sacks of his own.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsFreshman defensive end Carl Lawson had his coming out party with two sacks against Ole Miss.
“I feel like the pressure has been out on us by our coaches that it was time we stepped up,” Wright said. “In the LSU loss, we felt like the defensive line could have stepped up. I feel like we took a step forward tonight, and we’ll keep improving through the course of the year.”

“We did a great job,” Ford added. “We came into this thing with the motive to pressure the quarterback, and that’s what we did.”

The game was extra special for Lawson. He had shown flashes in practice but had not quite put it all together on the field. The 6-foot-2, 258-pound defensive end finally lived up to all the hype with his performance against the Rebels.

It was Lawson’s sack on fourth down in the final minutes that ultimately sealed the victory for the Tigers.

“I knew that we needed another stop,” he said. “Coach told me to go out there, and I had to pin my ears back and go to the quarterback, so that’s what I did.”

During the off week, the AU coaching staff tinkered with the defensive line and made some changes to the depth chart. It moved Nosa Eguae from defensive end to defensive tackle and made him a starter. Eguae thrived in the new role with three tackles and 1.5 for loss. As a team, Auburn finished with 14 tackles for loss.

“It was huge,” Eguae said. “In a game like this, we had to step up. We had to go out there and make plays. I feel like we did that. Guys continue to get better every single today, and it’s a testament of the work we’re putting in Monday through Friday. Guys are really buying into our system, and guys are reaping the benefits.”

The Tigers move to 4-1 on the season, just two wins shy of bowl eligibility, but their sole focus is on the next game.

“We’re on the rise, as Coach Malzahn says, but we don’t even need to think about that,” Lawson said. “We need to take it one game, one step at a time.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- It will be a strange feeling for Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn when he looks across the field Saturday and sees his former team. Malzahn coached at Arkansas State last year, and this weekend, the Red Wolves will visit the Plains for a nonconference showdown with the Tigers.

In his one year at Arkansas State, his first as a college head coach, Malzahn finished 9-3 and started their current nine-game winning streak. But when the ball kicks off Saturday, the nostalgia will wear off and the Auburn coach will want nothing more than to put an end to the streak.

“Personally, I care greatly for a lot of their players,” Malzahn said. “Their administration was great to me while I was there. It was a very good experience. I am very grateful for the opportunity they gave me.

“Professionally, you have got to flip the switch once the game starts, and you have to do everything in your power to help your team win. We will definitely do that.”

It won’t be an easy task. Arkansas State hired another bright, young offensive mind in Bryan Harsin, and the expectations are once again high for the Red Wolves. The game plan has likely changed, but the personnel remains very much the same.

Malzahn
Malzahn
“I was very impressed with Bryan,” Malzahn said. “We shared ideas. He’s one of the best in the business, one of the better offensive minds in all of college football.

“It’s going to be a different offensive system. You know about personnel and you know quite a bit about the personnel, but the scheme is going to be different. You don’t know what to expect. They have a lot of good football players. That’s the thing I know most about it.”

Storylines

What to expect from Nick Marshall, part two?

The first game was well documented. Marshall played conservatively, didn’t turn the ball over, but turned in a subpar performance overall. Will he take a step forward in his second game? Malzahn hopes so. The Auburn head coach plans to open up the playbook more and more each game for Marshall, and he wants to try and pick up the pace on offense. However, he still wants to keep his quarterback out of potentially precarious situations. With the SEC schedule beginning next week, this would be the ideal time for Marshall to have a breakout game.

Will Auburn’s linebackers step up to the challenge?

In the season opener against Washington State, the secondary was tested. Auburn had just one linebacker on the field for the majority of the game. That won’t be the case Saturday. Starting Will linebacker Cassanova McKinzy will see a lot more snaps as they try to defend Arkansas State’s potent rushing attack. The Red Wolves rushed for over 500 yards in the season opener against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Auburn's middle linebacker combination of Jake Holland and Kris Frost struggled at times in the first game, but they will have to play better on Saturday.

Who will be the playmaker for the Tigers?

Last week, it was Corey Grant on offense and Robenson Therezie on defense. Both players came up huge for Auburn in the Week 1 victory. Who will it be this week? There are plenty of candidates, including any one of the three-headed monster in AU’s backfield or maybe one of the freshman defensive linemen, but the Tigers need somebody to emerge this weekend. The coaches are also hopeful to find a go-to wide receiver for Marshall to throw the ball to.

Players to Watch

Auburn player to watch: DT Montravius Adams

Stopping the run will start up the middle, and it will be a team effort among Adams, Angelo Blackson, Gabe Wright and Ben Bradley. However, it was Adams who provided the spark last week. He energizes both the crowd and his teammates.

Arkansas State player to watch: RB David Oku

Oku started his career in the SEC with Tennessee. He transferred to Arkansas State after his freshman year, and this is his chance to prove he can still play well against teams in the nation’s top conference. The Red Wolves had four different players rush for more than 100 yards last week, but Oku is the most talented of the group.

Quotable

“They've got a lot of weapons back on offense, and I know they've got some really good players back on defense. It's going to take a much better effort from us this week. We're going to have to see that Week 1-to-Week 2 improvement if we want to win the game.” -- Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, on Arkansas State

Week 1 trends: Three up, three down

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Nick MarshallMichael Chang/Getty ImagesAuburn quarterback Nick Marshall improved in the second half and didn't turn the ball over.

After every Auburn game this season, we’ll take a look at three trends going up and three trends going down for the Tigers. On Saturday, the Tigers opened the season with a 31-24 victory over Washington State, a game that featured plenty of highs but also some lows.

Three up

1. The running backs: Nick Marshall didn’t blow anybody away in his debut at quarterback, but fortunately for Auburn, he didn’t have to. The trio of running backs carried the Tigers’ offense throughout most of the game and made big plays when they needed to. Tre Mason was solid with 15 carries for 73 yards, not to mention his 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne was the bruiser of the group, but he also looked nimble for his size. He finished with 52 yards rushing. And the breakout star was Corey Grant, who led the team with 146 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. All three look like they’re going to play a major roles.

2. Special teams: It’s often overlooked, but Auburn’s play on special teams was a big reason why they won. The highlight came on Mason’s kickoff return, but both kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clarke earned their All-SEC nominations with Saturday’s performance. Parkey missed a 50-yard field goal early in the game, but he drilled his last three attempts, which turned out to be the difference in the final score. Meanwhile, Clarke punted the ball five times for an average of 41.6 yards and put three of his kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard kube. Chris Davis looked impressive on his lone punt return, picking up 19 yards.

3. The newcomers: Head coach Gus Malzahn said he expected the majority of the 2013 recruiting class to play against Washington State, and while that might have been a little generous, the newcomers still made their presence felt, in particular on defense. When defensive tackle Montravius Adams came into the game, he made a sack on his first play. It energized the crowd as well as his teammates. Both Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson made appearances at defensive end, and juco tackle Ben Bradley also made a key sack for a loss of eight yards.

Three down

1. The secondary: Auburn made three interceptions Saturday, one more than all of last season, but they surrendered 344 yards passing to Washington State. Granted, they won’t have to face many offenses similar to Mike Leach’s air-raid attack, but the unit still showed glimpses of last season. There were breakdowns in coverage, including one that resulted in a 53-yard reception and ultimately led to a touchdown, and too many receivers were wide open. However, it’s not all on the defensive backs. Part of the blame falls on the front seven and their ability to generate a pass rush, which looked nonexistent at times in the first half.

2. Nick Marshall’s first half: The expectations were set very high, maybe too high, for Marshall coming into the season. It was obvious he wanted to show off his arm strength and make a play early in the game. Instead, he just looked nervous and out of sync in the first half. On his first play from scrimmage, he was indecisive and took a four-yard loss when he was tackled in the backfield. He was just 2 of 8 passing for 20 yards in the first half. The good news is that Marshall settled in during the second half and looked much more comfortable. Still nobody knows what to expect from the new quarterback, but with the nerves of his first game behind him, he should only improve from here.

3. Late turnover: For three quarters, the Tigers didn’t turn the ball over once. Say what you will about Marshall, but he protected the football. However, after an interception by Robenson Therezie that looked to seal the victory, Mason coughed the ball up while going for extra yardage. The defense came up with another key stop, but the game could have just as easily gone to overtime. Malzahn showed his trust in Mason by giving him the ball on the next drive, but Auburn has to avoid turnovers, especially late in games.
The starting quarterback was named weeks ago, but Auburn released the rest of its two-deep depth chart Wednesday in preparation for Saturday’s opener against Washington State.

As expected, junior college transfer Nick Marshall was the first-team quarterback with returning starter Jonathan Wallace and true freshman Jeremy Johnson listed as the co-backups. Former quarterback Kiehl Frazier also made the depth chart, but on defense, a move he made during fall camp. He’ll serve as the No. 2 boundary safety behind Joshua Holsey.

“I think everyday he feels more comfortable,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. "It’s like anything else -- the more you do, the better you’ll get at it. He’s a competitor. He’s a smart football player. He understands offensive concepts. There’s a good chance he’ll be out on the field [Saturday].”

Returning starter Jermaine Whitehead will man the other safety position with junior Justin Garrett getting the nod at Star, a new position specific to Ellis Johnson’s defensive scheme. Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy will start at cornerback for the Tigers.

The defensive line will be without its top pass-rusher Dee Ford for Saturday’s game, but Craig Sanders and former linebacker LaDarius Owens will fill in and start opposite of each other at defensive end. Inside, it will be Angelo Blackmon and either Jeffrey Whitaker or Gabe Wright at the two defensive tackle spots.

A trio of true freshmen defensive linemen -- Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson -- were all listed on the depth chart as well as juco defensive tackle Ben Bradley. Malzahn expects a majority of the freshmen to play Saturday, headlined by this group.

“Coach [Rodney] Garner, he's going to rotate a lot of guys, especially when you're playing a team that's going to throw it a lot,” Malzahn said.

In all, there were eight true freshmen who made the depth chart.

As for the offensive line, the only big unknown was at right tackle where sophomore Patrick Miller won the starting job. Miller’s backup Avery Young earned praise during fall camp, and although he won’t start, he has the ability to back up multiple spots on the line.

“Avery's an athlete,” Malzahn said. “He can play all five positions if he had to because he's very versatile and very athletic.”

Greg Robinson will start the other tackle spot opposite Miller with Alex Kozan and Chad Slade penciled in at guard. At center, it will be Reese Dismukes, who’s started there the last two seasons for the Tigers. He made the Rimington Trophy Watch List preseason.

The skill players are highlighted by running back Tre Mason, who was one of the few bright spots last season for Auburn with more than a 1,000 yards rushing. He’ll get the start, but Malzahn expects juco star Cameron Artis-Payne to make an impact.

“They're pretty much on equal ground right now going into this first game,” Malzahn said. “They've both had an outstanding fall camp. Corey Grant's a guy you could see in the mix, too. The best thing is we feel like we've got some quality depth at the running back position going in. You can never have enough of that.”

Auburn will kick off Saturday at 7 p.m ET against the Cougars.

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