Auburn Tigers: Dee Ford

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AUBURN, Ala. -- Gabe Wright isn’t a defensive end. At 6-foot-3 and 284 pounds, he simply doesn’t fit the bill. He’s too big, too valuable a space-eater inside at defensive tackle. Moving him to end would be like chasing a sports car with a tank. Some things just don’t make sense. Some players just aren’t built to play in space.

Yet there he is during practice this spring, lining up on the edge of the defensive line, pinning his ears back and rushing the passer. In doing his best Carl Lawson impression, Wright has gotten some fans on The Plains excited. But, as defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson cautions everyone: “I don’t foresee that being permanent.”

Carl Lawson, Gabe Wright
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Gabe Wright believes he'd be an effective defensive end in certain situations after getting reps there this spring.
Sorry, folks. The so-called “Rhino Package” won’t be an every down occurrence this fall, though the imagery in itself is something to root for -- plumes of dust, the screech of fans in the distance, the target of the hunt a helpless SEC quarterback named Brandon Allen or Dak Prescott or Dylan Thompson.

Wright and fellow tackle Montravius Adams aren’t the new wave of roughly 300-pound ends, though. They’re tackles through and through. Their time spent at end this spring has been only by necessity, making up for a shortened rotation of ends as Dee Ford and Craig Sanders were lost to graduation. Auburn took another hit when LaDarius Owens broke his foot, Keymiya Harrell went down with an unspecified injury and Elijah Daniel hurt his groin, leading to one of the more perplexing out-of-context quotes of all time from Johnson: “Groins can be funny.”

When asked if Auburn was thin at end, head coach Gus Malzahn responded, "We definitely are."

On the bright side, it's making things interesting for the rest of the defensive line.

“It’s a blessing for me to get on the edge,” said Wright, who played some end in high school. “We had some guys go down, some depth issues this spring. So guys had to step up.”

The blessing, for someone like Wright, is obvious.

“Let’s see: End, you get maybe 30 percent of a double team,” he explained. “When I’m inside, I get 90 percent of a double team.”

Wright, who finished second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and third with three sacks a year ago, said that spending time at end has helped him work on his pass-rushing skills. No longer struggling for space to move in a double team, he can get off the line and either rush the edge, swim inside or go one-on-one and bull-rush an offensive lineman.

Versatility, though, might the biggest benefit to having both Wright and Adams at end this spring. When opposing offenses go into jumbo packages, expect to see a few more big bodies along the defensive line this season.

“I think it does nothing but help us moving forward,” Malzahn said.

Said Wright: “The fact that we can maybe go four D-tackles at one point, that just amazes me. It’s like, What do you do? We can bull-rush the tackles and we can bull-rush the ends.”

When asked point blank whether he genuinely expected to play outside, Wright hedged his bets.

“When we do have teams like Arkansas, Alabama, LSU -- and this is not what coaches have told me -- I just believe it will be a factor,” he said. “You’ve got two-, three-tight-end sets. Why not be able to put a D-tackle out there?”

Whether he's at end or tackle, one thing will remain the same: Defensive line coach Rodney Garner will be there in his ear shouting words of, say, encouragement.

“All the same,” Wright said of Garner's colorful vocabulary. “It’s all 'exciting', 'exquisite' and 'extraordinary.' ”

And expletive?

“Expletive,” he said. “Very expletive.”
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.
Editor’s note: This is part three in a week-long series looking at five position battles to watch when Auburn opens spring practice in two weeks.

AUBURN, Ala. -- On Tuesday, the Auburn coaches and players looked on as former defensive end Dee Ford showed off his athleticism at the Tigers’ pro day. It was a bittersweet moment for most of them. On one hand, they want to see Ford get drafted in the first round. But it also reminded them of what they’re going to be without next season.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLaDarius Owens, right, is the most experienced defensive end on Auburn's 2014 roster and recorded half a sack in the BCS title game.
Despite missing the first two games of 2013, Ford still led the team with 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. He had one of the quickest first steps in the SEC and provided a consistent pass rush that more than made up for deficiencies on the back end.

“We don’t max blitz,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said prior to the VIZIO BCS National Championship. “We have to get there with four or five. ... I think our edge guys have been much more productive, and it’s obvious.”

So how do you replace that kind of production? That’s the question Auburn will try to answer this spring. It won’t be easy, but the Tigers do have a good mixture of veterans and rising stars who will vie for playing time.

The contenders

LaDarius Owens (senior): With Ford gone, Owens becomes the veteran of the group. He has played in 31 games and started 11, including the BCS title game. As a junior, he finished with 30 tackles, including five for a loss, and 2.5 sacks. He might not be the most explosive defensive end on the roster, but he’s the most experienced. And if last year was any indication, the coaches tend to lean toward experience.

Carl Lawson (sophomore): If you’re looking for the star of the group, look no further. Lawson was ranked the nation's No. 2 overall player in the 2013 ESPN 300 coming out of high school and showed flashes of that potential last season as a freshman. His teammates raved about his talent throughout the season, and Johnson said physically Lawson was ahead of where the older guys were at that point in there careers, Ford included. Lawson still has to earn his spot, but with his work ethic and attitude, he could be in for a monster spring.

Elijah Daniel (sophomore): Lawson stole the headlines last year, but he wasn’t the only freshman defensive end to make an impact. Daniel had a strong season in his own right. The former ESPN 300 prospect didn't start any games but still finished among the team leaders with 2.5 sacks. The upcoming spring is critical for the rising sophomore. Even if he doesn’t win a starting job, he can solidify his spot in the rotation before the newcomers arrive this summer.

Gimel President (sophomore): The next-most-experienced end on the roster is President, who played in three games last year and made three tackles. He’ll have an opportunity this spring to crack the two-deep depth chart and make a case for more playing time.

Keymiya Harrell (junior): He missed most of spring practice a year ago due to a knee injury, but Harrell is healthy and hoping to make the most of his opportunity this spring. He played in just one game last season.

Note: Three freshmen defensive ends are expected to arrive this summer, including ESPN 300 recruit Andrew Williams.

Spring forecast
Owens and Lawson should be the front-runners to start next season, but there are still plenty of opportunities available for the other players. Johnson likes to rotate his defensive linemen so he can keep his starters fresh for the fourth quarter, and there’s always the potential for injury, too. That’s why this spring is so important for players like President and Harrell, who could be running out of time to make an impression.
AUBURN, Ala. -- At last month’s NFL combine, all eyes were on Auburn’s Greg Robinson and Tre Mason. Robinson blew away scouts by running a 4.92 40-yard dash and bench pressing 225 pounds 32 times. Mason didn’t disappoint either with a time of 4.5 in the 40. The performances were strong enough that both opted not to work out at the school’s pro day on Tuesday.

The attention quickly turned to defensive end Dee Ford, who wasn’t cleared to work out at the combine because of a back procedure he had in 2011.

“They said they looked at some MRIs, and they just saw some things that they didn’t want to chance at the combine,” Ford said Tuesday. “I was definitely surprised. I had no clue that I wouldn’t be able to [work out]. It kind of knocked my training off a little bit because everything is timed when you’re training.”

Ford, known for his confidence and charisma, still made headlines in Indianapolis when he claimed he was better than top defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, comparing the former South Carolina star to a “blind dog in a meat market.” He finally got his chance to back up those comments at Tuesday's pro day.

"People can compare, but the combine is the combine," Ford said. "You’re just showing your athleticism. I think I did great. I think he did great."

The day started in the weight room where the 6-foot-2, 244-pound Ford put up 29 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press. It wasn’t quite the number Robinson had, but it was still eight more reps than Clowney had. He also had a 35 inch vertical jump and a 10-foot-4 inch long jump before moving to the indoor facility for the 40-yard dash.

With NFL scouts looking on and his future in the balance, Ford ran a 4.59 in his first attempt and improved to a 4.53 with his second attempt.

“I’m very pleased,” Ford said. “I put in a lot of work.”

It’s still too early to tell if Ford’s performance will move him into the first round, but it certainly didn’t hurt his chances. More importantly, the back issue was not a problem, and his knee, which he injured last August, held up just fine.

“It was never an issue,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said regarding Ford’s back. “He hadn’t been limited in any way. He’s done what we’ve asked in the weight room -- working out, conditioning. He looked very good and performed very well.”

The next step for Ford is individual workouts with teams.

Former Auburn cornerback Chris Davis also had a good day, running a 4.51 40 and jumping 40 inches in the vertical jump. In all, 14 players worked out on AU’s campus including former safety Demetruce McNeal, who was dismissed from the team in August.

“It’s real exciting to watch these guys workout,” Malzahn said. “They performed very well today, got a real good response.”

Offseason spotlight: Auburn

February, 26, 2014
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Auburn is losing a key component of its defensive line in Dee Ford, but that doesn't mean the Tigers lack talent up front defensively.

Spotlight: Defensive end Carl Lawson, 6-foot-2, 260 pounds, rising sophomore

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstCarl Lawson was a big-time recruit for Auburn, and he backed up that ranking in his freshman season.
2013 summary: Lawson played in all 14 games as a freshman and had 7.5 tackles for loss, including four sacks, which was second on Auburn's team. He also forced two fumbles and earned Freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News.

The skinny: It took Lawson a while to learn the ropes in Auburn's defense. Once he did, he really took off after that first month of the season. He didn't arrive on campus until the summer, so this will be his first spring practice under veteran coordinator Ellis Johnson. Physically, Lawson is a beast and has everything you're looking for in a defensive end in this league. The next step is becoming more in tune with what offenses are trying to do against him, which will make this spring and offseason so valuable. With Ford leaving early for the NFL draft, Lawson is the obvious candidate to become that explosive finisher off the edge for the Tigers. He's not just a pass-rusher, either, as evidenced by his fourth-down stop of T.J. Yeldon in the fourth quarter of the Alabama game last season. The Tigers really like their young talent on the defensive line. End Elijah Daniel and tackle Montravius Adams also are budding stars. But with a big offseason, Lawson has a chance to go from one of the most promising freshmen in the league to one of the most dynamic defenders in the league. The Tigers are banking on that happening.

Past spotlights:

SEC lunchtime links

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
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Happy Tuesday! It's combine, combine and more combine talk around the league, as SEC athletes make news in their NFL pursuits. Also, spring football is starting soon -- on Friday for Texas A&M -- so there's a sprinkling of that as well in today's lunch links:

SEC lunchtime links

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
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Forty-yard dash times and bench-press figures. Measuring height and weight down to the seventh of an inch. It's the annual meat-market bonanza known as the NFL combine and it came to you fast and furious throughout the weekend. When you're done scrolling through the day's SEC links, be sure to check out the rest of ESPN's NFL draft coverage at our combine headquarters.

Clowney turns in freakish 40 time

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
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South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney said he was going to put on a show at the NFL combine, and he delivered Monday morning with an unofficial time of 4.47 in the 40-yard dash.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Jim Dedmon/Icon SMIJadeveon Clowney wanted to make a statement at the NFL combine. He delivered on Monday morning.
That's a blistering time for a any defensive end. Clowney weighed in at 266 pounds, and his 40 time would rank among the fastest by a defensive lineman at the combine in the last 10 years. It was also faster than 56 running backs and receivers at the combine on Sunday.

There have been a ton of questions concerning Clowney, including his work ethic, focus and what motivates him. But he's easily the most explosive defender in this draft, and his 40 time will likely ensure his going in the top five.

Clowney did 21 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press on Sunday, which wasn't a big number. But with his long arms, that's not a huge concern.

Here's a look at how some of the other SEC players have fared so far at the combine:

Auburn DE Dee Ford: Ford made big news with something he said. He took a swipe at Clowney, saying the Gamecocks' defensive end "played like a blind dog in a meat market." Ford, who had 10.5 sacks last season, didn't work out Monday because of unspecified medical reasons. ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold reported that Ford was dealing with a lower back issue.

Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel: Electing not to throw at the combine, Manziel measured in at 5-11 3/4, but has huge hands for a guy his size (9 7/8 inches). Manziel's official 40 time was 4.68.

Auburn OT Greg Robinson: His official 40 time was a 4.92, which is staggering for a 6-5, 332-pound offensive tackle. He also did 32 reps on the bench press. Robinson obviously made the right call in coming out early because he's going to be the first or second tackle taken.

Vanderbilt WR Jordan Matthews: Measuring 6-3 and weighing 212 pounds, Matthews put to rest any questions about his speed and turned in a 4.46 in the 40.

Ole Miss WR Donte Moncrief: Moncrief helped himself with a 4.4 40-yard dash time, as did South Carolina's Bruce Ellington with a 4.45.

Below are some other 40 times of SEC players (official times):

Room to improve: Defensive line

February, 19, 2014
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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.

SEC Senior Bowl recap

January, 27, 2014
Jan 27
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Auburn defensive end Dee Ford made the biggest splash of the SEC players at the Reese's Senior Bowl. He was impressive all week during the practices and walked away from the game with MVP honors after recording a pair of sacks and several other hurries.

[+] EnlargeFord
AP Photo/Johnny VyAuburn's Dee Ford was named MVP of the Senior Bowl.
According to ESPN's Scouts Inc. folks, Ford was one of the top five performersInsider last week in Mobile and really shined as an edge pass-rusher. Ford's performance at the Senior Bowl shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who watched him this season in the SEC. He blossomed after struggling with injuries in October and was outstanding in the VIZIO BCS National Championship loss to Florida State. Right now, it sounds like Ford is a solid second-round pick who could potentially sneak into the first round. He doesn't have ideal size (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) to play defensive end in the NFL, but makes up for it with his quickness and burst off the ball. He could be an excellent fit for a 3-4 team as an outside linebacker.

Among the other SEC players who turned heads with their play last week and potentially helped their NFL stock, according to Scouts Inc., were Alabama outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard and Florida cornerback Jaylen Watkins. LSU safety Craig Loston and Auburn cornerback Chris Davis also had interceptions in the game. Alabama receiver Kevin Norwood had a 24-yard touchdown catch.

Two SEC players who didn't necessarily help their stock last week, according to the Scouts Inc. staff, were Missouri defensive end Michael Sam and Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews. Sam had a sack in the game, but relied too much on his speed rush. There are also concerns as to whether or not he can play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Matthews had a nice 33-yard catch in the game, but the knock on him during the week was that he dropped too many passes and struggled to make contested catches.

The SEC's 25 best players: No. 13

January, 27, 2014
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Had Senior Bowl week been factored into the countdown, this next player could have made a case for the top five. Even still, he was one of the most dominant pass rushers in the SEC this season.

[+] EnlargeDee Ford
AP Photo/Dave MartinAuburn senior Dee Ford had a knack for coming through in big games.
No. 13: Dee Ford, DE, Auburn, senior

2013 summary: After missing the first two games with a knee injury, Ford returned with a chip on his shoulder. He recorded seven sacks in his first seven games back and finished the season with 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. He was a first-team All-SEC selection and a major reason why Auburn reached the VIZIO BCS National Championship game.

Most recent ranking: Not ranked in the 2013 preseason countdown

Making the case for Ford: As was the case for most of the Auburn players this season, Ford played his best games on the biggest stage. When the Tigers traveled to Kyle Field to take on No. 7 Texas A&M, Ford sacked quarterback Johnny Manziel twice in the final minute to preserve a victory. Against Georgia, he was in the backfield all night and forced a incompletion on the game’s final play with one of his six quarterback hurries. In the BCS title game, he led an inspired effort from the defensive line and finished with a pair of sacks. Talent-wise, Auburn’s defense was lacking. It would’ve been ranked toward the bottom of the SEC, but it was a unit that made just enough plays in big moments to keep the magical season alive. Ford was a prime example. He was never the most talked-about player. He wasn’t a high-profile recruit coming out of high school. Yet he always seemed to outperform his expectations. It should come as no surprise that he went to the Senior Bowl last week and put on a clinic against the top seniors. Now, the skinny, unranked defensive end from Odenville, Ala., is a potential first-round draft pick.

The rundown:
No. 14: Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia, So.
No. 15: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina, Jr.
No. 16: Odell Beckham, Jr., WR, LSU, Jr.
No. 17: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri, Jr.
No. 18: T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama, So.
No. 19: Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU, Jr.
No. 20: Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss, Jr.
No. 21: Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn, Jr.
No. 22: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama, Jr.
No. 23: Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State, Sr.
No. 24: Kenny Ladler, S, Vanderbilt, Sr.
No. 25: E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri, Jr.

SEC lunchtime links

January, 27, 2014
Jan 27
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Happy Monday to you all. Hope everyone had a great weekend. Let's take a look at some of the interesting stories from around the league in today's edition of the lunch links:

Season report card: Auburn

January, 27, 2014
Jan 27
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Auburn's report card for the 2013 season is the kind you can't wait to take home to mom and dad.

OFFENSE: A

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsIt was a storybook season in many ways for Gus Malzahn's Tigers.
It doesn't get much better offensively than what we saw from Auburn in 2013. No, the Tigers didn't drop back and throw it a bunch, but they ran Gus Malzahn's hurry-up offense with precision, purpose and power and ran it all the way to a berth in the VIZIO BCS National Championship. Auburn finished 12th nationally in scoring offense with a 39.5-point average. And you want consistency? The Tigers scored 30 or more points in 13 of their 14 games and led the country in rushing offense at 328.3 yards per game. In their last three games (and their three most important games), they ran for a total of 1,073 yards against three highly ranked run defenses. Tre Mason led the SEC in rushing with a school-record 1,816 yards. Nick Marshall really came into his own at quarterback after coming over from junior college and flirted with 2,000 passing yards (1,976) and 1,000 rushing yards (1,068). The most underrated part of the Auburn offense was an offensive line that was the best in the league when the season ended.

DEFENSE: B-

Auburn's numbers on defense weren't pretty. The Tigers ranked 12th in the SEC in total defense (420.7 yards per game) and gave up way too many big plays for defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's liking. A prime example was the 49-yard catch and run by Florida State's Rashad Greene on the Seminoles' game-winning drive in the BCS title game. The Tigers had two players in position to make the tackle for a 10-yard gain, but it instead turned into a backbreaker. Nonetheless, Auburn's defensive plan in the championship game was outstanding, and the Tigers' defense played well enough overall to win. They made clutch plays all season on the defensive side of the ball and were excellent on third down and in the red zone. Senior defensive end Dee Ford developed into one of the best pass rushers in the league. This grade is a little higher on defense than maybe the numbers would suggest, but the Tigers played big when they had to.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A-

Punter Steven Clark was one of the best in the country at pinning teams deep and was one of the stars of the BCS National Championship. The Tigers were second in the SEC in net punting and second in punt return average. They also had three overall returns (two kickoffs and one punt) for touchdowns, not to mention the special teams play of the year in college football -- Chris Davis' kick-six to beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl. The downer was giving up the kickoff return for a touchdown to Florida State in the national title game, which completely changed the complexion of that contest. That's the only thing that keeps this from being a solid "A."

OVERALL: A

What a storybook season on the Plains. The Tigers, a year removed from going winless in the SEC, turned in one miraculous and/or thrilling finish after another to win the SEC championship and come within an eyelash of winning the national title. Malzahn did a masterful job in turning this program around, and his staff was equally superb. When you consider how far the Tigers came from where they were to end the 2012 season, this probably ought to be an A+. But we reserve those for national championship seasons. It wasn't quite a national championship season for Auburn. But, boy, was it a memorable one.

Past grades:

Alabama: B-
Arkansas: D

Auburn to-do list: Stay hungry

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
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Editor's note: This is Part V in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Auburn faces this offseason.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn has probably replayed the Florida State game in his head time and time again since that fateful night. If a play or two goes his team’s way, Auburn could have been national champion. Instead, it was the Seminoles who fought back and won, leaving the Tigers wondering what if.

As disheartening as it was to fall short after coming so close, the future remains bright for this Auburn team. Malzahn alluded to it in his postgame news conference.

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Nick Marshall
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Marshall returns as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate.
“We're going up,” he said. “The experience that we had, and we got most of our guys coming back. Recruiting is going great. Our goal is to get back here, and I really believe we'll do it.”

The Tigers should be among the favorites in the SEC heading into next season. They return eight starters on offense and seven on defense. They will have four of the five starters back on one of the nation’s most dominant offensive lines and a potential Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Nick Marshall.

However, there’s already a different feel this offseason. When Malzahn arrived at Auburn, he took over a team that finished 3-9 the season before. The players went through a storm, and it was up to Malzahn and his staff to bring back their confidence and change the culture around the program. Mission accomplished. The Tigers nearly won the national championship.

Now, as Malzahn enters his second year, it’s about handling success, staying motivated and staying on top.

There’s plenty for Auburn to do this offseason. The staff is currently focused on recruiting, but eventually, they need to find a way to replace the likes of Tre Mason, Greg Robinson and Dee Ford. They need to retool a defense that struggled at times last year. They need to work with Marshall and help him evolve as both a passer and a runner.

The list goes on, but the No. 1 priority should start with the returning players and their mentality. If they don’t have that edge back, nothing else matters.

“We want to try and build on the foundation that was laid this past year,” Malzahn told reporters this week at the Senior Bowl. “Our guys are a year into the program. The guys are excited about getting back out there, working out. That’s exciting for me.”

The players returned to the weight room this week, eager to put the BCS title game behind them and start fresh. It’s a little over two months before the first day of spring practice, and the season opener against Arkansas is just seven months away.

Will Auburn have another magical run like it went through this past fall? It’s too early to tell. But duplicating the success of last year hinges on the players and how hungry they are to get back to the top.
Editor's note: This is Part III in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Auburn faces this offseason.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Ellis Johnson is known for turning around SEC defenses quickly. He did it at Mississippi State in 2004. He did it at South Carolina in 2008. And it was no different this season at Auburn, his first as defensive coordinator.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsCarl Lawson will be called upon to step up as a pass-rusher in 2014.
Through the first 12 games, the Tigers were ranked No. 31 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 22.5 points per game. That was up 35 spots from a year ago when they gave up 28.3 points per game. The improvement can be attributed to a number of things, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Auburn’s defense did a good job of keeping teams out of the end zone, but it wasn’t keeping them off the field. It wasn’t preventing the big plays, or "trash plays" as Johnson calls them. In reality, it wasn’t stopping anybody.

“We have really given up way too much yardage to think that we have played extremely well this year, but we have played extremely well in some key situations,” Johnson said prior to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

Heading into its matchup with Florida State, Auburn was ranked No. 94 in yards per play (5.96) and against the likes of Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger and James Franklin, the Tigers were allowing 7.3 yards per play. Based on yards per play, they had the worst defense of the 144 teams that had ever participated in a BCS game.

When it came time for the BCS title game, Johnson had his team ready, though. Auburn came out prepared and shut down Florida State through the first three quarters. It was arguably the Tigers’ most impressive performance of the season.

However, the fourth quarter belonged to the Seminoles, and it was a ‘trash play’ on the final drive -- a quick slant to Rashad Greene that went for 49 yards -- that set up the game-winning touchdown.

One stop and Auburn would’ve been national champions. Now it’s a distant memory that can be used as motivation going forward.

When the Tigers return to practice this spring, it’s safe to assume that Johnson will put a point on emphasis on the yardage problem and specifically the trash plays. It won’t be easy, however, with five starters gone from last year’s team including its top pass-rusher Dee Ford and its top cover corner Chris Davis.

How do you replace a player like Ford who led the SEC in sacks per game?

The answer is you can’t, but it helps to have a pair of former ESPN 300 prospects like Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel coming up behind him. They both showed potential as freshmen, but they will have to be more consistent next season.

The secondary will be an even bigger challenge. The staff has to not only replace Davis but also safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White.

If Auburn wants to get back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, it’s up to the defense. The offense, despite losing two key pieces in Tre Mason and Greg Robinson, returns eight starters and should be among the SEC’s best next year. But the defense has to take another step forward, and it starts with taking out the trash.

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