AUBURN — The most experienced group on Auburn’s defense will be without its most talented player, perhaps all season.
Auburn’s defensive line has five seniors returning, with Gabe Wright, Jeff Whitaker and LaDarius Owens all projected to start, but the loss of sophomore Carl Lawson, who is out indefinitely as he recovers from ACL surgery, will be a challenge for the veteran group to overcome.
Lawson was the heir apparent to Dee Ford’s role as the primary pass rusher in the trenches. With a mid-season return sounding as though it’s the best-case scenario for Lawson, a group already needing to replace Ford’s 10.5 sacks last season will likely need a collective effort rather than one player rising to the occasion.
Wright, who led the line with 31 tackles, with 8.5 for loss, three sacks and nine quarterback hurries last season, could move outside in the short-term or Elijah Daniel might move up to fill Lawson’s spot.
Having four senior defensive tackles and Montravius Adams on the inside creates perhaps the deepest spot on the entire Auburn roster and the Tigers run defense will have no excuse for anything less than a very strong season.
Left defensive end — Carl Lawson (6-foot-2, 261 pounds, sophomore), Elijah Daniel (6-foot-2, 263 pounds, sophomore) —OR— Montravius Adams (6-foot-4, 306 pounds, sophomore)
Defensive tackle — Gabe Wright (6-foot-3, 284 pounds, senior), Angelo Blackson (6-foot-4, 306 pounds, senior) —OR— Montravius Adams (6-foot-4, 306 pounds, sophomore)
Nose Tackle — Jeff Whitaker (6-foot-4, 322 pounds, senior), Ben Bradley (6-foot-1, 303 pounds, senior) —OR— Montravius Adams (6-foot-4, 306 pounds, sophomore)
Right defensive end — LaDarius Owens (6-foot-2, 259 pounds, senior), Elijah Daniel (6-foot-2, 263 pounds, sophomore) —OR— Gabe Wright (6-foot-3, 284 pounds, senior)
Owens did not practice in the spring as he recovered from a foot stress fracture, but he’ll be the first candidate to become a more consistent pass rush threat. But he never cracked two tackles in the final nine games of the season, so if he is going to be asked to increase production in his final season, he has a ways to go.
Daniel could have a more prominent role after being in a situational role as a true freshman.
Wright and Whitaker are two of the leaders of the entire team, not just the defense or the line. After dropping roughly 15 pounds since last season, Wright is a leaner and more agile player and could appear on the outside, especially against run-heavy opponents.
Whitaker returns for a fifth year after missing last season with a knee injury.
When Adams is possibly the first player off the bench, you know the group is deep. The 306-pound sophomore will push for significant playing time and also could play on the outside.
Ben Bradley had a strong debut season after transferring and started three games last year. He’ll be a significant member of the line.
Blackson is a more than capable player to fill in as a sixth or seventh option.
Gimel President (6-foot-4, 259 pounds, sophomore) saw limited action last season and with so many newcomers, may not see much additional time.
Where JaBrain Niles (6-foot-2, 300 pounds, junior) fits in the rotation, assuming he is healthy, remains to be seen.
Keymiya Harrell (6-foot-4, 256 pounds, junior) could miss the whole season after reaggrevating his ACL.
DaVonte Lambert (6-foot-4, 280 pounds) and Devaroe Lawrence (6-foot-3, 290 pounds) both transferred from Georgia Military College and will be expected to contribute early.
Raashed Kennion (6-foot-6, 230 pounds), Andrew Williams (6-foot-4, 250 pounds) and Justin Thornton (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) are all longer, leaner rush ends and could end up on either the left or right side.
With so many players ahead of him it’s hard not to project Dontavius Russell (6-foot-3, 300 pounds) as a redshirt candidate.
“(Adams and Wright) might have a chance (to play end), we’ve got some guys with experience, LaDarius Owens. Coach (Rodney) Garner’s got a lot of flexibility.”
— Gus Malzahn