Auburn Tigers: LaDarius Owens

Who’s next? That’s the question asked by fan bases across the SEC. They all want to know which top recruit is most likely to come in and play right away. Who are the newcomers who are going to see the field early this fall?

In January, we broke down the top early enrollees once they arrived on campus. Now, as the late enrollees continue to trickle in around the conference, we take a look at a handful of four- and five-star guys who could impact the league in their first year.

Below are 10 late enrollees from the SEC West to keep an eye on. They're listed alphabetically. Check back later today for the top late enrollees from the SEC East.

Malachi Dupre, WR, LSU: Losing both Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry was a huge blow for LSU after last season, but some of that pain went away when Dupre signed with the Tigers. He’s not as experienced as fellow wide receiver Travin Dural, but he’s every bit as talented. Don’t be surprised if Dupre becomes the go-to guy for LSU this season.

Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: There’s not a more highly anticipated freshman in the country. As the nation’s No. 1 recruit, that comes with the territory, but the expectations for Fournette this season range from ridiculous to absurd. The scary part is that he has the talent and opportunity to make good on them and be one of the top running backs in the SEC.

Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M: He’s not Jadeveon Clowney, but Garrett might be the closest thing since Clowney came out in 2011. At 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, he’s a physical freak, and looks like he could step right on the field. The Aggies return all of their defensive ends, but that doesn’t mean Garrett won’t crack the rotation at some point.


Da’Shawn Hand, DE, Alabama: Finding pass rushers was a priority for Nick Saban and his staff in 2014, and they landed one of the nation’s best in Hand. The 6-foot-4, 262-pound prospect, ranked No. 6 overall, can play both with his hand down on the line or in space as a rush linebacker. Regardless of where he ends up, he’ll make an immediate impact.

Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama: Between Humphrey and five-star Tony Brown, Alabama should be set at cornerback for the foreseeable future. The question is which one is more likely to play early this season? Brown has a leg up after arriving early, but Humphrey has the size and technical ability to come in and contribute right away.

Bijhon Jackson, DT, Arkansas: Bret Bielema’s goal is to build Arkansas from the inside out, and Jackson is the perfect piece to serve as the cornerstone of the defensive line for years to come. He’s already big enough (6-2, 330) and strong enough to play as a freshman and should make a good unit even better for the Hogs this fall.

Rod Taylor, OG, Ole Miss: Austin Golson’s transfer this spring left Ole Miss thin along the offensive line, but Taylor, the Rebels’ top-ranked signee in 2014, could be just the man to fill the void. Year-after-year, he drew rave reviews from SEC coaches at various camps, and now he has an opportunity to fulfill the potential that everybody saw in him.

Racean Thomas, RB, Auburn: The Tigers have three capable running backs already on campus, but the coaches still believe that Thomas will be a factor this season. They’re even giving him a chance to compete for the starting job in fall camp. Although it’s unlikely he wins the job, Thomas will play and play often for Auburn this fall.

Aeris Williams, RB, Mississippi State: Mr. Football in the state of Mississippi didn’t go to Taylor, the state’s top recruit. It didn’t go to Markell Pack or C.J. Hampton. It went to Williams, a four-star running back who had 2,821 all-purpose yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior. He’s now expected to carry that over to his freshman year at Mississippi State.

Andrew Williams, DE, Auburn: With the loss of Dee Ford and the uncertainty surrounding the health of Carl Lawson and LaDarius Owens, defensive end went from a position of strength to a position of need for Auburn. The good news is that Williams arrived last month and is plenty capable of filling in and contributing early if needed.

Other late enrollees to watch include S Jamal Adams (LSU), LB Rashaan Evans (Alabama), CB Nick Harvey (Texas A&M), CB Tee Shepard (Ole Miss) and LB Tre Williams (Auburn).
AUBURN, Ala. – When Gabe Wright looks at Auburn’s defensive line, he sees a lot of potential and something really special.

The Tigers’ senior defensive lineman sees talent spilling out and the experience needed to create even more of a presence than the one this line had during Auburn’s 2013 BCS title game run.

“As far as ability-wise, this D-line could go down as, if not the best, one of the best in the SEC and NCAA,” Wright told ESPN.com in April.

Wright doesn’t mince his words. He’s serious about the potential from a defensive line that could play five seniors, line up three rising sophomores or play all defensive tackles. He’s that confident about the players around him.

[+] EnlargeMontravius Adams
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMontravius Adams displays "unbelievable" talent on Auburn's defensive line.
Last year, Auburn’s defensive line was very much a work in progress to start the season. The line grew with every week and produced a first-round draft pick in end Dee Ford, who was second in the SEC with 14.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks last year. Freshmen Carl Lawson, Elijah Daniel and Montravius Adams matured quickly.

Really, when people think about and dissect Auburn’s defensive line, they mostly come back to those blossoming youngsters who will all play even bigger roles up front this fall. As last season wore on, those three went from role players to rotational players.

“They have a better understanding,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told ESPN.com in April. “Their heads aren’t spinning like they were [last season]. They have a better understanding of the defense than their roles.”

And while the sophomores-to-be, who were all ESPN 300 prospects in the 2013 recruiting class, will have a lot more on their respective plates this fall, they certainly won’t be alone to shoulder all the responsibility.

Ford is gone, but there’s leadership from Wright and fellow seniors Angelo Blackson, LaDarius Owens and Ben Bradley, who combined for 18.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last year. They'll also benefit from the return of senior Jeffrey Whitaker, who missed all of last season with a knee injury.

All that leadership was crucial to the group's success this spring as the line found itself short on defensive ends because of graduation and injuries.

Owens, who Wright classifies as “freakish,” broke his foot a week before spring practice began, and Daniel pulled his groin 20 minutes into the first spring practice. Because of that, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and defensive line coach Rodney Garner had to move Wright and Adams to end for the sake of numbers.

The moves were good and bad for the Tigers. On one hand, Johnson said he’d like to use heavier fronts at times this fall, so Wright and Adams needed some work outside. But it took away valuable time those two could have used inside this spring, as both will still mainly be tackles this fall. Johnson didn’t like having to play guys outside longer out of necessity while taking away from the main looks Auburn will run this fall.

Still, watching Adams cross-train caught Johnson’s eye. Johnson already knew Adams was an athlete because he played tackle, end, running back, tight end and punted in high school. But Johnson said he saw some pursuit plays from Adams that were “unbelievable,” and he’s excited about Adams' second-year capabilities.

“He’s so athletic for his size, he can do about anything,” Johnson said with a laugh.

Another youngster to grab Johnson's attention was Lawson, who could be his most talented lineman. Lawson was second on the team with four sacks last year and evolved more this spring, Johnson said.

What really impressed Johnson about Lawson was his thirst for being more well-rounded this spring, tossing the “rookie flash” to be an “every-down player.”

“A good spring in our system and he’ll learn all the special things that it’ll take to be a complete player,” Johnson said. “He did some great things for us last year but had little mistakes here and there just from a lack of experience.”

Johnson didn’t get all the work he wanted out of his line this spring, but he’s excited. He likes the foundation and the crop of blue-chip players coming in, headlined by junior college tackle DaVonte Lambert. Johnson doesn’t have a Dee Ford to throw out there right now, but he sees flashes of something special.

What was a major question entering last season should be a bright spot for the Tigers in 2014.

“Let’s just face it: We have so many packages, so many guys who can hit you where it hurts,” Wright said. “We have ends who can make the quarterback step up and tackles who can push the pocket and rush the passer.

“Will I say that the talent level could be as good as Dee’s? Yes, I’ll absolutely say that.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- Before spring practice, we previewed Auburn’s top five position battles. Now that spring is over and the players have had a chance to compete against each other, who has the upper hand at each position?

Position battle No. 1: Star

[+] EnlargeRobenson Therezie
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsRobenson Therezie looks like he'll be the starter at the Star position when the season starts.
This was Robenson Therezie’s job before spring practice, and it’s still Therezie’s job. The senior defensive back played through a broken bone in his hand, an injury he suffered the first week, and although he didn’t wow anybody, he also didn’t do anything to give the job away either. Justin Garrett and Mackenro Alexander will continue to push for playing time behind him, and there’s been talk that safety Joshua Holsey might get a look there in fall camp when he returns from injury, but the coaches feel confident with Therezie. He’s still improving against the run and in man-to-man coverage, but he’s a spark plug for this Auburn defense. Time and time again last year, he came up with a big play in a key situation.

Position battle No. 2: Left tackle

The battle at left tackle is ongoing. Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller took turns taking reps with the first-team offense throughout the spring, and though neither has emerged as the starter, both had strong springs. Coleman, a natural at left tackle, came out with the first group for the opening drive of the spring game. He’s stronger than his counterpart and a better run blocker. However, Miller has the advantage in pass protection and has more game experience, making 14 starts at right tackle the past two years. The good news is that Auburn has two capable candidates that could start for the majority of teams in college football. The bad news is that we won’t know a decision until fall camp at the earliest.

Position battle No. 3: Defensive end

If Auburn’s season opener was last month, there’s a strong possibility that Gabe Wright would have been the starter at defensive end -- the same 284-pound Wright who played all of last year at defensive tackle. That’s how depleted the position was this spring. Returning starter LaDarius Owens missed all of spring practice with a foot injury while sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel, the favorites to take over for Dee Ford on the other side, also sat out at some point due to injury. Still, there was progress made. By all accounts, Lawson had a terrific spring despite missing the spring game and improved his all-around game. Daniel played in the spring game and finished with three tackles, 2.5 for loss and one sack. Wright might see some time at end next fall, but it’s more likely he stays inside once everybody is healthy.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCorey Grant showed his big-play abilities this spring.
Position battle No. 4: Running back

Tre Mason might be gone, but Auburn showed this spring that it has plenty of talent returning at the position. No, a starter wasn’t named, and if it’s anything like last year, the team’s go-to back might not emerge until three or four games into the season. But Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant proved that they are each more than able to take over for the former Heisman Trophy finalist. Artis-Payne had 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game while Grant flashed his big-play ability with 128 yards and a touchdown on just five carries. Throw in redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and ESPN 300 star Racean Thomas, who is scheduled to arrive later this month, and it’s once again a position of strength for the Tigers.

Position battle No. 5: Cornerback

The spring game has not been kind to Jonathon Mincy recently. He was ejected from last year’s game for targeting, and he didn’t play at all in this year’s game. Fortunately, that doesn’t affect his status as the team’s No. 1 cornerback. As long as he’s healthy, he’s expected to move over and replace Chris Davis as the boundary corner. On the other side, Jonathan Jones still looks to be the favorite, but Trovon Reed turned heads with his performance this spring. The former wide receiver had three tackles, one for a loss and two pass breakups in the spring game. Expect even more competition in fall camp when Holsey returns from injury and when incoming freshmen Kalvaraz Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin arrive on campus.
Before the beginning of spring practice, we made five predictions about the defending SEC champs. Some made us look smart. Others, not so much. Let’s take a look back:

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesCan Nick Marshall get Auburn going even faster?
Prediction No. 1: No slowing down

Gus Malzahn’s offense is no longer fast. It’s #Auburnfast. The coaches have begun using the hashtag on Twitter for everything from players’ 40-yard-dash times to their recruiting routes in New York City (see @rhettlashlee). Either way, it was evident from the first practice of spring that Auburn wanted to go even faster than last season. The entire second period was dedicated to pace, and the first, second and third-team units all worked on running the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. The key will be quarterback Nick Marshall and his comfort level with the offense. On Wednesday, Malzahn said Marshall was a lot more reactive this spring and that it was coming more natural to him. That’s a good sign for Auburn and a bad sign for SEC defenses.

Prediction No. 2: No Ford, no problem

It’s still a little early to say the defensive line will be better in 2014 without sack leader Dee Ford, but that’s only because we never got a chance to see a healthy group up front during spring practice. Injuries riddled the defensive line, forcing players such as Montravius Adams and Gabe Wright to move from tackle to end. Rising sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel both missed time while defensive end LaDarius Owens, a starter last season, missed the entire spring with a foot injury. When everybody is healthy and when the six 2014 signees on the defensive line arrive this summer, it will be a deeper, more talented group than what Auburn had a year ago.

Prediction No. 3: More balance on offense

This one depends solely on Marshall’s progression as a passer, but if the spring game was any indication, Malzahn intends to throw it quite a bit more this season. Marshall went 13-of-22 for 236 yards and four touchdowns in the first half, and afterwards, Malzahn said the emphasis was obviously on throwing the football as it had been throughout the spring. Junior college transfer D’haquille Williams looked as good as advertised in the spring game, catching five passes for 88 yards and a touchdown. He adds another target to what was already a deep stable of wide receivers. Auburn will still be a run-first football team. That’s who it is, and that’s what Malzahn wants to do. But it’s not crazy to think that Marshall will average 10 or more passing attempts per game this season than he did last season.

Prediction No. 4: Open audition at LT

The prediction was that Auburn would wait until the fall to name a starter at left tackle, and to nobody’s surprise, it held true. Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller are veteran guys. They don’t need to know who the starter is going to be until the week before the first game. They’re going to keep plugging away like they always do. The only real takeaway from the spring that was that Auburn has two left tackles good enough to start, and if they can start on that offensive line, they’re likely good enough to start for the majority of teams in college football. There was also a thought that Avery Young would see time at left tackle, but he stayed on the right side for the duration of spring practice.

Prediction No. 5: Breakout candidates

Did we hit a home run with Daniel and Peyton Barber as our breakout candidates? No. But we didn’t strike out either. Daniel missed part of spring with a groin injury, but he returned and quietly had a strong spring game. The sophomore defensive end finished with three tackles, 2.5 for a loss, one sack and one quarterback hurry. Barber earned rave reviews from his coaches and teammates throughout the spring, but he injured his ankle on his first carry of A-Day and missed the rest of the game. He went 10 yards on his lone carry, showing good feet and a good burst, but also fumbled at the end of the run. Looking back, the breakout player of the spring had to be junior college safety Derrick Moncrief, who took advantage of an opportunity and carved out a role in the secondary.
AUBURN, Ala. -- What’s the adage? Offense wins games, but defense wins championships. Well, after Nick Marshall and the first-team offense put up 44 points in the first half of Saturday's spring game, it’s clear that Auburn has enough firepower to win games. But do the Tigers have a defense good enough to win a championship?

That answer remains unclear.

The 58-3 final score looks bad, but more than anything, it shows a lack of depth on the defense, which is understandable given the number of injuries that ravaged the Tigers this spring. Last week, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he had about a dozen guys who either missed all of spring practice or a good portion of the spring. Saturday was no different.

[+] EnlargeBrandon King
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Brandon King breaks up a pass intended for Marcus Davis during the spring game. The Auburn defense's lack of depth showed on Saturday.
Potential starters Carl Lawson, LaDarius Owens and Jermaine Whitehead did not play, and a handful of other key contributors were limited in action, making it difficult to get a read on how good this unit really is.

“I feel like the defense did good,” defensive lineman Gabe Wright said after the game. “It’s hard to say that when the team has got 50-something points, but the first-team unit, we did better. There wasn’t a lot of loafs, according to the coaches. Guys were making plays, so overall I feel like it’s a win for us.”

Wright, who started at defensive tackle last season, played defensive end in the spring game because of all the injuries. He was one of the many players who moved around this spring, and he’s another reason why the grade for the defense is incomplete.

One positive that came from all of the attrition was that it gave several younger players a chance to compete.

With Joshua Holsey out this spring, junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief stepped up and earned himself some playing time at one of the safety spots, while versatile sophomore Johnathan Ford played well at the other spot in place of Whitehead on Saturday.

“They looked pretty well,” Robenson Therezie said of the two safeties. “Those are the type of guys we can count on in a big game. They’re not rookies anymore, especially Derrick Moncrief. He came in, and he just got it. He caught up with everything. We feel pretty comfortable with the secondary right now.”

It was no different at linebacker, where injuries limited both Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy and paved the way for Kenny Flowers. The former junior college transfer was named defensive MVP of the spring game after he finished with seven tackles, 2.5 for loss and a sack.

“It felt great,” Flowers said. “I wasn’t a big factor last year, but I hope to be this year.”

Ultimately, the defense that Auburn rolled out Saturday probably isn’t capable of winning a conference championship, let alone a national championship, but it’s going to look a lot different in the fall, when everybody is back and healthy. That’s when the true test will come.

“This defense is going to be really good,” Therezie said. “Probably better than last year, because we have some guys coming back. We understand the concept of what Coach Johnson is running and everything, so it’s going to be really good. I can’t wait to see it.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn might have been 3-9 in 2012, but that didn’t stop the fans from piling inside Jordan-Hare Stadium for last year’s spring game. There was a record crowd of 83,401 who were on hand to welcome new coach Gus Malzahn, not thinking that he would eventually lead the Tigers to the BCS title game nine months later.

“I think [A-Day] is for the overall program,” Malzahn said. “Like I’ve said before, we’re all in this together -- our fans, our players, our coaches. This is one of those unique opportunities. We want to make it exciting for our fans, and at the same time, we want to get better.”

The crowd could be even bigger this year with the Tigers coming off a 12-2 season and an SEC championship. Here are five things to watch in Saturday’s spring finale (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET):

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith his confidence sky high, expect Auburn QB Nick Marshall to be even better running the Tigers' high-powered offense.
1. Faster is better: The proposed “10-second” rule never made it to a vote, and that means that Auburn’s offense is only going to get faster. It took first-year quarterback Nick Marshall nearly half the season before he became comfortable in Malzahn’s offense, and even then he wasn’t as confident as he has looked this spring. The senior is making better reads, throwing the ball better and more importantly, he’s become a leader. Expect Marshall to take the hurry-up, no-huddle offense to another gear this fall, and although the spring game won’t give much away, it will give the fans a glimpse of what’s to come.

2. Juco impact: If you ask the fans, the player they most want to see Saturday would almost certainly be wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player a year ago, and there’s already talk that he could be one of the top wideouts in the SEC next season. The coaches and players alike have raved about his talent this spring, and he’ll make his debut in front of the fans this weekend. However, don’t sleep on his juco teammate Derrick Moncrief. The former Prattville (Ala.) defensive back has had as good as spring as anybody on the team and could push for a starting role in the secondary.

3. Blind side battle: Don’t expect the left tackle battle to be decided during Saturday’s spring game. The coaches have all but said they will wait until the fall before naming a starter. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be worth keeping an eye on. Sophomore Shon Coleman, who served as Greg Robinson's primary backup last year, might have a leg up in the race and will likely take the field with the first-team offense, but Patrick Miller, the more experienced of the two, will get his reps, too. In his first two seasons at Auburn, Miller started 14 games at right tackle, and he might see some time there depending on what the coaches do with Avery Young.

4. Health concerns: There could be some familiar faces not in action Saturday. It’s been a frustrating spring from a health standpoint, and while there haven’t been any serious injuries, there have been enough nagging injuries to force the coaches to get creative. Defensive tackles Montravius Adams and Gabe Wright have both worked some at end, and with LaDarius Owens out and Carl Lawson questionable, the “Rhino package” could make an appearance. Earlier this week, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson indicated that some of the starters who have been banged up might not get as many reps in the spring game.

5. The running backs: It was this time last year when Cameron Artis-Payne, a junior college transfer at the time, first made his mark on the Plains. He had 164 yards of offense and a touchdown in the spring game, which earned him offensive MVP honors. He’d like to duplicate that performance in this year’s game and claim the starting job, but Corey Grant won’t go down without a fight. Grant, who primarily ran the jet sweep last year, will show what he can do as a featured back. And don’t forget about redshirt freshman Peyton Barber, who could wind up leading the team in carries when it’s all said and done.

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.

Room to improve: Defensive line

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
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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 aims to end SEC losing streak

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
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AUBURN, Ala. -- All the talk has centered around Alabama and Texas A&M this week, and rightfully so, but there’s another intriguing SEC matchup taking place on the Plains this weekend. Auburn versus Mississippi State, a game that features two similar teams vying to start the conference season off on the right foot.

Both coaches know how important it is to win that first SEC game.

“I think it gives you great momentum moving forward,” Auburn’s Gus Malzahn said. “You don't feel like you're in an uphill battle the rest of the conference season. Of course in this conference, if you're going uphill, it's tough. So it's definitely a big game.”

“It's the first SEC game of the year,” Dan Mullen added. “Here at Mississippi State in the little time I've been here, I think even prior to my time, it's been against Auburn every single year, so I think it adds a little bit of a rivalry aspect to the game. I think the first game is so critical on how you start your year off in conference play.”

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
John Reed/US PresswireAuburn hasn't won an SEC game in nearly two years, when Gus Malzahn was the Tigers' offensive coordinator.
You could argue that Mississippi State needs a win on Saturday. After a 7-0 start last season, the Bulldogs have lost six of their last eight games, and a loss to Auburn could put their postseason aspirations in serious jeopardy after only Week 3.

But nobody needs a conference win more than Auburn. It’s been nearly two years or exactly 685 days since the Tigers last won an SEC game. Malzahn was still the offensive coordinator at Auburn when the Tigers won their last conference game. They finished 0-8 last season, winless for the first time since 1980.

“I haven’t even thought about it,” Malzahn said. “I've told those guys I'm not even worried about last year. It's a new year, and it's a new season. We understand the SEC and that we're going to have to play well to win. But we've not talked about last year.”

There might not be much talk of last year on Auburn’s campus right now, but the players on that team didn’t forget. They had to play through it. They remember how difficult it was, and that’s why they understand the importance of Saturday’s game. They want that elusive SEC victory, not just for their teammates and coaches, but for the fans too.

“It's very important,” defensive end LaDarius Owens said. “We haven't had one in a while and it was a good feeling leaving the stadium. A lot of fans walking up to me saying it feels good for them. We put them and ourselves through a lot of turmoil last year, a lot of trouble. We want to get a win for us as well as for our fans. They deserve it.”

But all week, the Auburn coaches have been preaching to the players that it’s a different season now. The Tigers are 2-0, one win away from matching their win total from all of last year. The offense has looked much improved. The defense is keeping teams out of the end zone. There’s a general buzz around the program again.

But the real season begins Saturday, and although it will be Malzahn’s first SEC game as a head coach, he understands what’s at stake and embraces it.

“I think you have to, especially in this league,” he said. “You've got to be real with your players. I think our more experienced guys understand that. We play in the best league in college football, and any time you play an opponent you've got to have your best. We understand that.”

The players will be ready, and even the newcomers will likely have an extra bounce in their step come game time.

“It will be a little extra excitement, first SEC game,” first-year running back Cameron Artis-Payne said. “I know I’ve never played in an SEC game, so I’ll be a little more amped. But at the end of the day, it’s still just football.”

So while Alabama and Texas A&M will be the center of attention on Saturday, Auburn and Mississippi State will play a game just as critical to both teams.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Through the first two games, Auburn’s defense is ranked in the bottom half of the NCAA, giving up 443 yards per game. But yet, the Tigers have not allowed a touchdown since Washington State scored in the second quarter of game one. That’s six straight quarters and 19 straight possessions that Auburn has kept the opponent out of its end zone.

“We’ve got a lot of things we can improve on, but like I told the players, any time somebody doesn’t touch the end zone, you’ve done something right,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said.

During Saturday’s victory, there was a point midway through the second quarter where Arkansas State had more yards and had nearly doubled the time of possession, yet trailed 14-3. The Red Wolves made it inside the AU 30 on each of their first three drives, but they were stopped on fourth down twice and had to settle for a field goal the other time.

Just like in game one, the Tigers’ defense stepped up and made plays when they needed to.

“We had an edge not to let them in the end zone going into the game,” linebacker Cassanova McKinzy said. “Like Coach Johnson says, when you face a team, you don't let them in your end zone. It has nothing to do with the play calling. It was the heart of all the guys on the field. I feel like we just had an edge. We were just playing like a brand new team.”

McKinzy, in particular, had a good game. The weakside linebacker didn’t play much in the opener because of personnel and schemes but finished with eight tackles and two quarterback hurries against Arkansas State.

LaDarius Owens also recorded eight tackles for Auburn, including two for a loss and one sack. In the second quarter, he chased down the quarterback and forced an incomplete pass on fourth down, a stop that killed a 14-play, 54-yard drive for the Red Wolves.

“It’s kind of a bend-not-break theorem,” Owens said. “We’re still in the early parts of the season, a few kinks we’ve got to correct, but it’s all about attitude. Whether you give up a big play, it’s next-play mentality. That’s what the defense is all about.

“We have to stick together through the good and bad times. We were able to stay strong in short yardage, fourth-and-short and dealing with them getting in our red zone.”

Auburn’s first-year defensive coordinator has been around the game for a long time, but it’s been awhile since he’s heard the bend-don’t-break philosophy.

“If somebody coaches that way anymore, I don’t know,” Johnson said. “I’ve heard all that. A lot of people like if you blitz a lot or do you not blitz a lot -- not blitzing is bend, don’t break. I think I was in the third grade when that term started and as you can see, I’m pretty old.

“We certainly don’t have a philosophy where each series we say, ‘We want to give up 50 yards guys but don’t give up a touchdown.’”

Ideally, the defense would like to get off the field in three plays or less, but for Auburn, the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy has worked to this point. On the flip side, it’s also helped mask some of the team’s weaknesses early in the season, including missed tackles and third down stops, but the Tigers are still 2-0 through the first two games.

What we learned: Week 2

September, 8, 2013
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn put away any upset talk with an impressive 38-9 victory over Arkansas State on Saturday. Here are three things we learned:

Malzahn’s offense is dangerous: Sure, it was only a Sun Belt team -- albeit one that was on a nine-game winning streak -- but it’s been a while since we’ve seen Auburn put up more than 35 points against an FBS opponent. The Tigers scored 20 or fewer points in eight games last season. But Gus Malzahn is back, and the offense is better because of it. Give credit to the offensive line, which has been outstanding in each of the first two games, but the scary thing is that quarterback Nick Marshall hasn’t reached his full potential. As he continues to improve and learn the system, he could take the offense to another level.

The defense has plenty of depth: As impressive as the offense was in Week 2, the Auburn defense played even better. They held Arkansas State -- which scored 62 points and rushed for more than 500 yards in the season opener -- without a touchdown. The key to the success was how deep the Tigers are, especially on the defensive line. They rotated players on the line all night, which kept everybody fresh and allowed for reserves such as Carl Lawson and LaDarius Owens to make plays. At linebacker, Cassanova McKinzy played a lot more snaps on Saturday and took full advantage. He tied for the first on the team with eight tackles.

It still wasn’t perfect: As dominant as Auburn looked at times, Saturday’s victory didn’t come without mistakes. Marshall gave up his first turnover of the season when he fumbled the ball while trying to elude defenders in the pocket on third and long. The turnover didn’t prove too costly as the defense held Arkansas State to a field goal, but Florida’s Jeff Driskel can tell you that that teams are not always that lucky. The other troubling stat was penalties. Auburn had nine penalties for 91 yards, including a targeting call that led to the ejection of linebacker Kris Frost. By rule, Frost will now have to miss the first half of Saturday's game against Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

Helmet stickers: Week 2

September, 8, 2013
9/08/13
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AUBURN, Ala. -- It was a complete game played by Auburn in its 38-9 win over Arkansas State on Saturday. The offense played well, the defense played well, and even the special teams was solid. Now it’s time to hand out some helmet stickers.

QB Nick Marshall: In his first start, Marshall looked nervous and struggled through the first half. On Saturday, there was no sign of nerves. He completed his first three passes and capped the opening drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Marcus Davis, his first touchdown at Auburn. He also finally connected on a long ball. Marshall threw a beautiful ball to Sammie Coates on a 68-yard touchdown pass late in the first half. The Tigers’ quarterback finished 10 of 17 for 147 yards and the two scores. He also looked better with the zone read and added 53 yards on the ground.

RB Cameron Artis-Payne: Take your pick from the three-headed monster in Auburn’s backfield. Last week, it was Corey Grant. This week, we’ll go with Cameron Artis-Payne. The junior college transfer led the team with 19 carries for 102 yards. He scored his first career touchdown on a physical 12-yard run late in the game, a run that showed both his strength and his quickness. Grant added a touchdown, as did Tre Mason, but it was Artis-Payne who took the bulk of the carries in the fourth quarter and put the game out of reach. Between all three backs, they rushed for a combined 241 yards.

DE LaDarius Owens: Before the game, it was announced that Nosa Eguae would start in place of Owens at one of the defensive end spots. The move provided extra motivation for Owens who came off the bench to lead Auburn with eight tackles, including two for a loss and one sack. He set the tone for an AU defense that was in the backfield all night, either stuffing the run or pressuring the quarterback. The Tigers finished with 13 tackles for loss and two sacks in the victory. The unit was called out after a subpar performance in Week 1, and it responded, especially the defensive line.

Honorable mention: LB Cassanova McKinzy

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