AUBURN -- The top question facing Auburn’s defense is who will be the top pass rusher this fall.
Dee Ford is gone and Carl Lawson is out half the season, at best.
Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams worked at defensive end in the spring, and LaDarius Owens and Elijah Daniel are viable options on the edge as well. But a new name has joined the mix, and it may not be one most fans expect.
Cassanova McKinzy, already making the move from weak side to middle linebacker, has been practicing at defensive end in Auburn’s Dime package during fall camp.
"Every time I can steal time from my practice schedule to get Cass over there to (defensive line coach) Rodney (Garner)," defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. "He needs the skill sets with his handwork and his footwork because he’s probably as far as the first step, the ability to flip his hips, drop his hips, the power that you have to have sometimes to be a good pass rusher, he’s got them all.
"We’ll eventually, hopefully, get him involved in that pass rush group if he can bring something to the table."
It’s a throwback of sorts for McKinzy, who played defensive end while at Woodlawn High School.
"I like it," he said. "I’ve been away from it since I’ve been in college. In high school, I was a D-end, recruited as a D-end, so it’s just a matter of keep repping it out and trying to get back to it. I feel like if I keep on working at it, I can get it all back."
McKinzy led Auburn with 75 tackles last season, with eight for loss, two sacks and six quarterback hurries. He had 1 1/2 sacks against LSU while lining up as an edge rusher.
Johnson likes the matchup the 6-foot-3, 249-pound McKinzy presents to a running back when the offense is in a passing situation.
"When he blitzes; then when we go one-on-one with the running backs he's the best I've got, with them trying to block him," Johnson said. "He's gotten up to around 250 maybe a little more. He's still one of the quicker kids we've got.
"He can sink his hips and drop his pad level. He can flip his hips and make the turn, he can do a lot of things (as a pass rusher) but he doesn't know how to do them right now. So we've got to get him more repetitions at that."
By moving McKinzy to end in the dime package, Kris Frost, who is the better of the two in pass coverage, plays middle linebacker, where he played last season, and either Justin Garrett or Josh Holsey are the dime back.
Developing more skills adds another assignment to McKinzy, who is already working on being a more vocal linebacker and better leader. He’s up for the new challenge.
"I feel like on third down, that’s a critical moment so you want to be in tip-top shape with your hands and your speed," McKinzy said. "I feel like it’s a lot of pressure on me but I thank God for (the coaches) believing in me."