Auburn DE Dee Ford
The spotlight will be on Auburn's offense this spring, as the Tigers look to fix what was the SEC's worst offense last season and turn it into something that is at least somewhat competitive.
While the offense—and particularly the four-man quarterback battle—will dominate headlines, a far more pressing matter for the Tigers is fixing the defense.
That starts up front.
The Tigers finished last season with the worst rush defense in the conference (197.58 YPG), giving up an average of 4.9 yards per carry in the process.
No matter how good your offense is, you can't give up a first down every two downs and be successful in any conference, much less the SEC.
But Auburn's struggles up front weren't due to lack of talent. In fact, there's plenty of talent in the trenches on the Plains.
Senior defensive end Dee Ford has been "on the brink" for the majority of his Tigers career and has been hampered by injuries. The 6'2", 238-pounder finished last season with 34 tackles and a team-high six sacks. He's quick off the edge and can make a living in the backfield, but has the discipline to be strong against the run as well.
New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson likes to have a bigger defensive end on the other side, and Ken Carter fits the bill. The 6'4", 287-pound senior former defensive tackle was moved outside during spring practice. From most accounts, Carter handled the move well.
"I don’t know that he’s a natural end, but he’s played extremely well for his first time moving out there," Johnson told AL.com this spring.
Throw in tackles Gabe Wright, Jeffrey Whitaker, Angelo Blackson and junior college transfer Ben Bradley inside, and the Tigers have the ingredients for a solid defensive line.
But as Auburn found out last season, potential doesn't translate to success.
A new coaching staff signals a fresh start, and that can be incredibly beneficial to the Tigers defensive line. The incumbents will be fighting for their jobs this summer and doing so against a talented group of true freshmen signed in the class of 2013.
Defensive end Carl Lawson was one of the centerpieces of head coach Gus Malzahn's first class as head coach. The 247Sports.com composite 5-star prospect from Alpharetta, Ga., is a chiseled 6'3", 245 pounds and will find the playing field either as a starter or as a major part of Johnson's defensive line rotation.
Joining Lawson outside will be 6'4", 250-pound defensive end Elijah Daniel. The 4-star prospect flipped to Auburn on national signing day from Ole Miss and has the size to fit in on the side opposite Lawson on the defensive front. He's solid against the run and is quick off the edge, which makes him valuable in Year 1.
In the middle, 5-star defensive tackle Montravius Adams will push for playing time as well. The 6'4", 310-pound Vienna, Ga., native looks the part of a veteran rather than a true freshman.
Will Auburn finish in the top five in the SEC in rush defense in 2013?
Part of the reason why Auburn was so successful in 2010 was the play of Nick Fairley, and Adams looks like a Fairley clone.
Is that kind of production expected in his first season? Of course not. But if he looks like Fairley a few times per game, it might be all Auburn needs to keep the interior defensive line fresh for a full 60 minutes.
At best, Auburn will have a deep rotation along the defensive line. At worst, it has options.
Either way, it's big news for the Tigers.