Auburn Tigers: Montravius Adams

Ranking the SEC defensive tackles

June, 16, 2014
Jun 16
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We ranked the top defensive line units in the SEC earlier on Monday.

We take it a step further now and rank the top 10 tackles or interior linemen in the league heading into the 2014 season. Notice a trend with the top four?

[+] EnlargeA'Shawn Robinson
AP Photo/Butch DillA'Shawn Robinson led Alabama in sacks in 2013 as a true freshman.
1. A'Shawn Robinson, So., Alabama: The 6-foot-4, 320-pound Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks last season as a true freshman and has barely scratched the surface of how good he can be. An end in the Tide's base 3-4 defense, he moves inside to tackle when they go to four down linemen. Those in and around the Alabama program will tell you that he's on track to be the best defensive lineman the Tide have had under Nick Saban.

2. Chris Jones, So., Mississippi State: A year ago as a true freshman, the 6-5, 300-pound Jones played on sheer talent and was still a disruptive force. He led the Bulldogs with 10 quarterback hurries to go along with three sacks. He's now more technically sound, and with his "freaky" talent is primed for a huge sophomore season. He says he's still an end at heart and might line up there in certain situations.

3. Robert Nkemdiche, So., Ole Miss: The consensus No. 1 high school prospect in the country last year, Nkemdiche started the season at end and then moved inside to tackle. He finished third on the team with eight tackles for loss despite missing two games with a strained hamstring. At 6-4 and 277 pounds, Nkemdiche is big enough and explosive enough to be a dynamic playmaker no matter where he lines up.

4. Montravius Adams, So., Auburn: Because of injuries, the 6-4, 305-pound Adams worked at end this spring and was hard to miss with all the big plays he made. He has exceptional speed and quickness for such a big guy and is exactly what you're looking for in a defensive lineman in this league. He's another one who could line up at a couple of different spots this fall and will give the Tigers a lot of options up front.

5. J.T. Surratt, R-Sr., South Carolina: Jadeveon Clowney received all the fanfare last season, and Kelcy Quarles put up the big numbers. But don't sleep on Surratt, who's extremely underrated and heads up a deep group of defensive tackles for the Gamecocks. The 6-2, 305-pound Surratt is eager to prove that he's one of the league's premier interior defensive linemen in his own right.

6. Gabe Wright, Sr., Auburn: One of three senior tackles returning for the Tigers, Wright shed 12 pounds this spring and worked some at end. He led all Auburn defensive tackles last season with 8.5 tackles for loss and nine quarterback hurries. Wright has the experience, athleticism and talent to have an All-SEC season and gives defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson some flexibility along the defensive front.

7. Darius Philon, R-So., Arkansas: Once committed to Alabama, the 6-3, 283-pound Philon emerged as the Hogs' most active defensive tackle last season as a redshirt freshman. He led all Arkansas interior linemen with 46 total tackles, including nine tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. He admits that he needed that first year on campus to mature, but is now primed to achieve elite status in this league.

8. Issac Gross, Jr., Ole Miss: Size isn't everything at tackle. The 250-pound Gross proved that last season. He consistently went up against bigger guards and centers on the offensive line and used his quickness to lead the Rebels with 3.5 sacks and was second on the team with nice tackles for loss. Gross started four games at nose tackle last season.

9. Matt Hoch, R-Sr., Missouri: Overshadowed by Michael Sam and Kony Ealy last season on the Tigers' defensive front, the 6-5, 295-pound Hoch quietly went about his business and had his best season, with a career-best 41 total tackles. He has 25 career starts to his credit and is one of those players who just finds a way to get to the ball. He has been equally superb in the classroom.

10. Leon Orr, R-Sr., Florida: The Gators are lacking depth in the middle of their defensive line and will lean heavily on the 6-5, 305-pound Orr, who had 4.5 tackles for loss a year ago in his first season as a starter. He has played in the shadows of a couple of NFL first-round draft choices (Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley), so this is his chance to anchor the interior of that unit.

Second-year stars: Auburn

June, 4, 2014
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In 2013, the freshmen of the SEC were truly fabulous.

Hunter Henry and Alex Collins were impact players at Arkansas. Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche were spectacular for Ole Miss. And who can forget the play of Vernon Hargreaves III, Chris Jones and A'Shawn Robinson?

[+] EnlargeMontravius Adams
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMontravius Adams burst onto the scene early last season but failed to produce much the rest of the 2014 campaign.
But standout rookies aren’t easy to come by. More often it takes some time to make a transition from high school to college, and in Year 2 we generally see the biggest jump in production from players.

With that in mind, we’re taking a team-by-team look at the players who didn’t quite break through as freshmen but could see their stock skyrocket with as sophomores.

Next up: Auburn

Class recap: Before Gene Chizik was fired, he and his staff had put together a strong recruiting class at Auburn. It was up to Gus Malzahn, who was hired in December, to try and keep it intact. The new staff saw in-state stars Reuben Foster and Dee Liner flip to Alabama, but they were able to keep defensive end Carl Lawson, the nation’s No. 2 prospect, and the majority of other recruits who had already committed. Malzahn also picked up a late commitment from junior college quarterback Nick Marshall who turned out to be a critical piece to Auburn’s turnaround this past season.

Second-year star: DT Montravius Adams (6-foot-4, 306 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Ranked No. 13 overall in the ESPN 300, Adams just missed out on five-star status. The Vienna, Ga., product was the No. 3 player in the Peach State and the No. 2 defensive tackle nationally.

2013 in review: Nobody will forget Adams running onto the field for the first time against Washington State and sacking the quarterback on his first-ever play. It ignited a defense that looked slow and stagnant before that, and it instantly created lofty expectations for the freshman star. However, that turned out to be Adams’ only sack of the season. He played in 13 games but finished with just 20 tackles, 1.5 for loss and that lone sack.

2014 potential: Maybe Adams wasn’t ready for the rigors of a college football season. His playing time decreased as the year went on, and with it, so did his impact on the game. He now has been at Auburn for almost a full year, and he had a chance to go through spring practice for the first time. Everybody is talking about Lawson as a breakout star for 2014, but what’s stopping Adams from becoming a dominant force up front? The talent is there, and with Nosa Eguae moving on, there’s now an opportunity, too. He has had star written all over him since he arrived on the Plains, but it’s up to him when he fulfills that potential.

Also watch out for: Adams and Lawson are both in line for huge sophomore seasons, but don’t sleep on fellow defensive lineman Elijah Daniel. He was fourth on the team in sacks (2.5) as a freshman and should get a boost in playing time. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson showed he was more than capable of filling in for Marshall when needed last year, and the coaches might try and use him even more this year. Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens are both expected to contribute to one of the deeper wide receiver corps in the SEC. Davis made some clutch catches last year while Stevens hauled in two touchdowns in the spring game. And knowing that both the starting kicker and punter were going to be seniors, Malzahn addressed each position in the 2013 class with Daniel Carlson at kicker and Jimmy Hutchinson at punter. The two redshirt freshmen are expected to start for the Tigers this fall.
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.”
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. -- 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.
Now that we've taken a look at five potential breakout players this spring from the SEC Eastern Division, it's time to check out the West (again in alphabetical order):

  • Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn: With Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae gone, the Tigers are looking for help along the defensive line. Senior Gabe Wright could be a threat for them inside, and so could Adams, who is coming off a solid freshman season. He had 20 tackles and a sack last season and could be in for a solid spring on the Plains. Adams can clog the middle with his 6-foot-4, 304-pound frame, but he's also a good pass rusher from the middle. Adams has a chance to take a huge step this spring and appears to be on the right track already.
  • [+] EnlargeDural
    AP Photo/Bill HaberLSU receiver Travin Dural's touchdown catch against Arkansas last season could be a sign of things to come in 2014.
    Travin Dural, WR, LSU: The Tigers are trying to replace two future NFL receivers and are breaking in a new, young quarterback. That means they need a new go-to guy to feed this spring. Keep an eye on Dural, who caught that game-winning touchdown pass against Arkansas last fall from Anthony Jennings. LSU is hoping Jennings and Dural have increased chemistry this spring. Dural is a speed demon on the field and should be an immediate deep threat for the Tigers. With the position so wide open, Dural has a shot to secure one of the starting jobs this spring.
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: He showed flashes of greatness last year but should get an even bigger role in the offense this spring as his game matures. The thing about Howard is that he's a mismatch whenever he steps on the field. He's too fast for linebackers to cover one-on-one and too big for defensive backs to consistently stay with. He needs to get the playbook down and get more comfortable on the field, but having a year under his belt should help him in both areas. Howard has a chance to be a big-time player in the SEC, and this spring should go a long way toward that.
  • Derrick Jones, CB, Ole Miss: The sophomore-to-be played in nine games last year and made three starts. He's in a fight for one of the Rebels' cornerback spots this spring, but has a chance to be a special player for Ole Miss. Senquez Golson will likely get most of the attention at corner this spring, but Jones is a player the coaches really like and he has a lot of upside after playing as a true freshman. Making Jones into a legitimate cover corner in this league is the goal coming out of spring.
  • Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M: We thought he'd be a breakout player last year, but a knee injury cut his season short early on. Seals-Jones has all the athleticism, talent, speed and upside to be an All-SEC player this fall. Sure, the Aggies are throwing out a new quarterback this year, but their offense is very generous to receivers and Seals-Jones is the perfect weapon for A&M to have. He has the size to be a top-flight deep threat on the outside, but he's also very capable of playing inside, which just makes him that much more versatile for the Aggies.

Opening spring camp: Auburn

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
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Schedule: The reigning SEC champions will begin their title defense on Tuesday when they open spring practice in Auburn, Ala. They will work out every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday before wrapping up with the A-day scrimmage on Saturday, April 19 at 1 p.m. ET.

What’s new: After a complete overhaul of the coaching staff last offseason, Auburn’s current coaches will all be back for a second year on the Plains. There were rumors involving head coach Gus Malzahn (University of Texas, Cleveland Browns), as well as some of his assistants, but now that the dust has settled, they will be one of five coaching staffs in the SEC that will remain intact next season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCan Gus Malzahn and QB Nick Marshall improve on Auburn's successful last season?
On the move: Word out of Auburn is that there’s a strong possibility that wide receiver Trovon Reed moves to cornerback this spring. The former ESPN 300 star, who caught nine passes for 98 yards as a junior, hinted at the move in January via Instagram, but Malzahn refuted the rumor, calling it “premature.” The news will likely become official Monday when Malzahn holds his pre-spring news conference. The other name to watch is Johnathan Ford. There has been talk that the sophomore cornerback will return to his natural running back position, but the staff has also considered moving him to safety this spring.

On the mend: Safety Joshua Holsey injured his knee in practice just days before the Texas A&M game and missed the rest of the season. It was a costly blow to an already thin Auburn secondary, and with the loss of three seniors back there, his return next season is paramount. However, he’s questionable for spring and will likely not participate in any contact drills. Offensive lineman Jordan Diamond is also expected to be no-contact per Malzahn. There’s been no word on the progress of wide receiver Jaylon Denson, who tore his patellar tendon early in the season against LSU, but he’s considered doubtful for spring practice.

New faces: Auburn will have five early enrollees this spring but none bigger than wide receiver D’haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player, and he has the size, skill and potential to make an immediate impact for the Tigers. The next month will give him the opportunity to get acclimated, work with the quarterbacks and learn the offense. His teammate in junior college, Derrick Moncrief, is also expected to push for early playing time at either safety or the Star position. He’s the lone newcomer on defense.

Question marks: Auburn’s defense struggled at times last season, but it still improved under first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson. The stats prove it. However, Johnson will be the first to tell you that his unit needs to play better if the Tigers want to have any chance of duplicating last year’s success. It won’t be easy, though, as they need to replace five starters on defense including the team leader in sacks, Dee Ford, and the team leader in tackles, Chris Davis. With plenty of depth up front and budding stars like Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, the defensive line shouldn’t be a problem, but the secondary is a different story. The coaches will have to mix and match back there before reinforcements arrive this summer.

Key battle: When Greg Robinson left early for the NFL, it didn’t come as a surprise -- he’s a surefire top-five pick -- but it left a gaping hole at left tackle for Auburn. Malzahn said that offensive line coach J.B. Grimes will open it up to Shon Coleman, Robinson’s backup last fall, and Patrick Miller, a former starter at right tackle. But there’s more. The second-year coach also mentioned Avery Young and Robert Leff as possibilities to win the job. Young is the one to keep an eye on. He’s entrenched as the starter at right tackle after taking over midway through the year, but there’s a good chance the staff moves him over to left tackle at some point this spring, especially if neither Coleman nor Miller emerge as the favorite.

Breaking out: On Friday, I wrote about running back Peyton Barber and defensive end Elijah Daniel (read here), who could both emerge this spring, but junior wide receiver Ricardo Louis is another player who falls in the same category. He’s more established than the other two, finishing second on the team last season with 28 receptions for 325 yards, but he has yet to live up to his potential. With Williams now on campus, along with ESPN 300 wide receiver Stanton Truitt, it might be now or never for Louis.

Don’t forget about: On the subject of breakout performances, who can forget what Justin Garrett did last spring? He impressed the coaches so much so that he earned a starting role on Auburn’s defense heading into the fall. The problem was that he never made a start. Multiple injuries kept him off the field and prevented him from ever truly making an impact last season. The junior accepted a medical hardship and is now eager to return this spring, finally healthy. The coaches loved his versatility at the Star position, and if he can replicate what he did last spring, he could push Robenson Therezie for playing time.

All eyes on: There are plenty of talented players and key pieces on Auburn’s 2014 roster, but the Tigers will go where Nick Marshall takes them. The senior quarterback was absent last spring after transferring from junior college and arriving in the summer, but it didn’t seem to faze him during the season. He threw for 1,976 yards, rushed for 1,068 yards and combined to score 37 touchdowns. Now he’s a legitimate Heisman candidate heading into the upcoming season. The scary part is that he’s still improving as a passer. That’s the area where the coaches want to work with him this spring, but with all of his receivers back and the additions of Williams and Truitt, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t take the next step as an all-around quarterback.
This is Part II of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Room to improve: Defensive line

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.
On Wednesday, RecruitingNation put out its Ultimate ESPN 300, a ranking of the best high school football prospects since 2006. It incorporated both the prospect’s grade and projection out of high school combined with his actual college impact and production.

The top six players all hail from the SEC, and Auburn was well represented with seven players on the list, including six in the top 150. Freshman defensive end Carl Lawson, ranked No. 93, was at the top of the list for the Tigers. The Peach State product was the No. 2 overall player in last year’s ESPN 300 and showed glimpses of his potential this past season.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsTre Mason didn't make the ESPN 150 coming out of high school, but his ranking in the Ultimate 300 shows how big of an impact he's had at Auburn.
Lawson is joined by fellow defensive linemen Montravius Adams (121), Nick Fairley (125) and Corey Lemonier (259) on the ultimate 300. Running back Tre Mason (124) and offensive linemen Lee Ziemba (135) and Greg Robinson (150) also made the cut.

Here’s a more detailed look at Auburn’s recruiting since 2006, the year our scouts began doing evaluations.

Overachiever: Mason and Robinson are both viable candidates. Neither was ranked in the ESPN 150, but the duo was instrumental in Auburn’s turnaround this past season. Let’s go a different route, though, and look at a player who was a little more under the radar coming out of high school. When wide receiver Darvin Adams signed with the Tigers in 2008, he was ranked No. 90 at his position. It was before RecruitingNation did star rankings, but his 77 grade would have made him a three-star prospect today. After only catching three passes as a freshman, Adams blew up as a sophomore in 2009. He finished among the SEC leaders with 60 catches for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns. He nearly duplicated those numbers in 2010 with 52 catches for 963 yards and seven touchdowns. The Georgia native left school early after his junior year but went undrafted and eventually signed with the Carolina Panthers as a free agent.

Underachiever: When Trovon Reed signed with Auburn in 2010, it was a major recruiting coup for Gene Chizik and his coaching staff. The four-star athlete was ranked No. 39 overall in the ESPN 150. However, his career has been hampered by injuries, and he’s yet to make the impact everybody expected him to make when he arrived. Reed’s best season came in 2011 as a redshirt freshman when he had 21 catches for 164 yards, but he’s had just nine catches in each of the past two seasons. There was talk that he might move to defensive back for his fifth and final year on the Plains, but coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t confirmed it, calling the move “premature” when he met with the media earlier this month. The move could help Reed, who is still looking to find his niche with this Auburn team. It might just be the perfect change of scenery for the once-promising prospect.

Most important: You won’t see his name on the Ultimate 300 because he came from junior college, but nobody’s made an impact on Auburn’s football program in the last decade like Cam Newton. He was only on the Plains for one season, but in that time, he won the Heisman Trophy and led the Tigers to the 2010 BCS National Championship. He finished with 2,854 yards passing, 1,473 yards rushing and set the school record with 51 total touchdowns in a season. He was an iconic figure in college football. Before signing with Auburn, Newton took visits to Arizona, Mississippi State and Oklahoma.

Biggest miss: The losses of Cyrus Kouandjio and T.J. Yeldon, who both flipped from Auburn to Alabama during the recruiting process, were well-documented and likely hurt more because they went to an in-state rival. But let’s not forget how close the Tigers were to signing ESPN 150 running back Marcus Lattimore in 2010. It came down to Auburn and South Carolina for the Palmetto State prospect, who ultimately chose to stay in state. At the time, it was easy for AU fans to get over it because they had signed Michael Dyer, the nation’s No. 1 running back, but as good as Dyer was, he couldn’t stay out of trouble off the field. Can you imagine if Lattimore had come to Auburn and stayed healthy? He and Newton would’ve been scary in 2010.

Auburn to-do list: Finish strong

January, 20, 2014
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Editor's note: This is Part I in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Auburn faces this offseason.

AUBURN, Ala. -- It was a season to remember for Auburn. The Tigers were left out of the postseason a year ago, but under the direction of first-year coach Gus Malzahn, they went 12-1 -- winning nine straight at one point -- and made it all the way to Pasadena, Calif., for the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

That’s where the dream ended, though. In similar fashion to how Auburn had won so many of its games, No. 1 Florida State scored a touchdown with just 13 seconds left to knock off the Tigers and close the book on the "team of destiny."

As disappointing as the loss was, it didn’t deter Malzahn and his coaching staff.

“The next day, I got up the same time, got in the office the same time,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got recruiting. We’ve got to move on. We’ve got to keep this thing going -- not a lot of time to rest.”

The focus turned toward Auburn’s recruiting class, currently ranked No. 9 in ESPN’s class rankings. The Tigers have 21 commitments, including five prospects that have already signed and enrolled for the spring semester. But the Tigers want to use the momentum from their championship run to finish strong in the weeks leading up signing day.

So what’s the strategy?

“Just filling overall needs,” Malzahn said. “There’s not really one area that stands out. Just more of the big picture and getting the right people in here.”

Over the weekend, Auburn played host to a handful of official visitors including ESPN 300 offensive tackle Braden Smith (Olathe, Kan./Olathe South) and four-star defensive ends Andrew Williams (McDonough, Ga./Eagles Landing Christian) and Davon Godchaux (Plaquemine, La./Plaquemine), an LSU commitment. Auburn is thought to be the favorite for Williams, who tweeted a photo with Malzahn on Saturday.



The current class was also well-represented this weekend with the majority of Auburn’s commitments making the trip to the Plains, including in-state running back Racean Thomas (Oxford, Ala./Oxford) and rising quarterback Sean White (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./University School of Nova South).

Next weekend will be more of the same as ESPN 300 linebacker Rashaan Evans (Auburn, Ala./Auburn) is expected to be on campus. It won’t be much of a drive for the hometown prospect, but it could be a crucial visit if the Tigers want to fend off in-state rival Alabama for his services. Evans took his official visit to Tuscaloosa this past weekend.

At this time a year ago, Auburn closed as strong as anybody and finished with the No. 11 class despite coming off a tumultuous 3-9 season. Nick Marshall, Marcus Davis, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel were among those who committed to the Tigers in the final month before signing day. All four made significant contributions this season.

Before the coaches can begin searching for a replacement at left tackle or retool a defense that lost five starters, they must focus on recruiting and finishing strong. The solution might still be out there, waiting to be had.
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

How Missouri and Auburn were built 

December, 4, 2013
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After losing 16 games combined last season, Missouri and Auburn have come a long ways as they prepare to face off Saturday in the SEC championship game. How, exactly, did both of these schools get here?

Their success on the field this season -- just two losses combined -- is more impressive considering Auburn is in Gus Malzahn's first season as coach and Missouri moved over from the Big 12 to the SEC before last season. Recruiting is tough enough as it is, but going through such a major transition for both programs can be detrimental to a school's recruiting class.

[+] EnlargeDorial Green-Beckham
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsFormer No. 1 overall recruit Dorial Green-Beckham has caught 49 passes for 686 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
If games were determined by recruiting rankings, Missouri would be at a big disadvantage. Over the past five years, Missouri has never finished inside the top 25 in the team recruiting rankings. In that same time period, the Tigers have landed only five recruits ranked in the ESPN 300.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Every year it seems more and more freshmen are playing in college football. It’s no different in the SEC. Top programs like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU have started or played first-year players in critical games this season.

The same holds true for Auburn, which signed the No. 11 recruiting class this past February. Head coach Gus Malzahn has said he’s not afraid to play freshmen right off the bat as long as they’re talented enough.

So what’s the secret behind the freshmen impact in the college football?

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsFreshman defensive end Carl Lawson had two sacks against Ole Miss.
“Physically, kids are coming out of programs -- they’ve got better strength programs -- they’re bigger, faster and stronger, naturally,” AU defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “They’re probably coached as good or better than they were, and I just think a lot of them are ready to play at that level, and we’re able to find a role for them to play.

“Some of them don’t have the competitiveness, some of them don’t have the temperament, some of them don’t have the fundaments, but heck, the physical talent -- you can look at some in high school and tell, these guys can play with us.”

Through the first five games, Auburn has already seen a number of freshmen contributions.

Defensive end Carl Lawson earned SEC freshmen of the week honors with his performance against Ole Miss last weekend. The five-star recruit finished with six tackles, including 3.5 for loss and two sacks.

Marcus Davis emerged as the go-to wide receiver when the Tigers trailed Mississippi State in the final minutes. He caught four passes for 38 yards on the game-winning drive and helped Auburn put an end to their SEC losing streak.

In the season opener, it was defensive tackle Montravius Adams who provided a much-needed spark for the defense when he entered the game and sacked the quarterback on his first play.

The Tigers are not yet to the halfway point of the season, but there are still plenty of freshmen waiting for their opportunity. If all goes well Saturday, there’s a strong possibility some of them might receive that chance against Western Carolina.

“First and foremost, we've got to go win the football game,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “And we've got to play well. But there are some guys like a Tony Stevens that you'd like to get more action. Marcus Davis is already playing more. I think a guy like an Avery Young, maybe try to get him more meaningful reps, too.”

On defense, the freshmen players who are most likely to see more action include the trio up front -- Adams, Lawson and Elijah Daniel -- cornerbacks Johnathan Ford and Kamryn Melton, and possibly Mackenro Alexander, a defensive back who recently moved to the Star position and played against Ole Miss.

“Mackenro got about nine reps to sub [Robenson Therezie], and I bet those reps, down the line, are going to help him,” Johnson said. “That’s the first time he’s had any true game experience. He did some good things. We hope in the future we can give him some rotation a little bit out there.”

But the freshmen who has received the most attention this week is quarterback Jeremy Johnson. The ESPN 300 recruit has yet to play a snap this season, but with starter Nick Marshall still questionable with a knee injury, there’s a chance the staff turns to Johnson on Saturday. He battled for the starting job during fall camp.

“We have not played him yet, and I know obviously it is getting to a point now where you have to do what is best for him and what is best for your team,” Malzahn said. “But he is still getting a lot of reps in practice and he is improving, there is no doubt.”

Planning for success: Auburn

October, 10, 2013
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AUBURN, Ala. -- It’s Homecoming week which means a lesser opponent for Auburn on Saturday, but that doesn’t change anything for the Tigers. They’re treating Western Carolina like any other team, even with Texas A&M looming.

“There's a lot of different philosophies,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “Some people want to spend a week and just work on the next opponent and some people don't.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Wallace
John Reed/US PRESSWIRECould backup quarterback Jonathan Wallace see some action for the Tigers vs. Western Carolina?
“We're more of the mind-set that we want to treat it (like a regular game). We want to try to keep things consistent for our guys. So for the most part, it's going to be a normal game week. We’re preparing for one opponent, and we’re not really going to work ahead at all.”

Auburn is 2-0 against Western Carolina, including a 56-0 win over the Catamounts in 2002, their most recent meeting.

What Auburn needs to do to win: It’s safe to say Auburn will likely win the game, but it’s not as much about the outcome or the final score as it is about the team playing well and improving. The Tigers are currently riding a wave of momentum, and they want to continue that through this weekend and into the Texas A&M game. Western Carolina has given up more than 40 points in four games this season, so the offense should have no trouble moving the ball. It would be a victory for the defense, which has given up their fair share of yards, to keep the Catamounts out of the end zone or off the scoreboard altogether.

Players to watch

Auburn QB Jonathan Wallace: Starting quarterback Nick Marshall suffered a minor knee injury against Ole Miss, and although it’s likely he’ll play, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t ruled one way or the other yet. If Marshall can’t go, Wallace is next in line to get the start. He started four games for the Tigers a year ago.

Auburn DT Montravius Adams: How much will he play? Adams suffered a leg bruise which kept him out of the second half against Ole Miss. The coaches say he’s fine, but it will be interesting to see how much he actually plays Saturday. If he does suit up, he’ll be hungry to match the performance fellow freshman Carl Lawson had last weekend.

Quotable
“Whenever you have one of your players carted off, that is one of the worse feelings you can have as a coach. I looked up and saw him back on the sidelines standing up and moving with a smile on his face. That gave me a lift, and I am sure it gave the rest of our coaches and players a lift, too.” -- Gus Malzahn on Cassanova McKinzy’s neck injury from Saturday

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