The Auburn Tigers have a big task ahead of them on defense this spring and summer, when they will have to replace the production of departed defensive end and future early-round NFL draft pick Dee Ford.
Ford led the team with 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss in the near-national championship season of 2013, showing well with two tackles for loss apiece against a couple of the best offensive lines in college football, Texas A&M and Florida State.
As a reward, Ford was named to the All-SEC first team, but what he meant to Auburn extends far past the stat sheet and accolades. He was the spiritual leader of the defense, the one teammates looked to when the Tigers needed a boost or big play.
Take, for example, his fourth-down bull rush of Cedric Ogbuehi and seek-and-destruction of Johnny Manziel to clinch the win over Texas A&M in October—the game that changed Auburn's season:
Fortunately, the cupboard on the Plains is not bare.
The most likely candidate to replace Ford—and the player who, physically, stands the best chance of replicating his production—is rising sophomore Carl Lawson, who was a 5-star prospect in the class of 2013 and an immediate contributor as a reserve last season.
Ladarius Owens does return and started 12 games last season, but he is better against the run than rushing the passer. If anything, the continuity of his presence only helps Lawson's case in trying to be the next Ford. He'll have an experienced senior across from him.
Despite not starting in 2013, Lawson finished second on the team with four sacks and fourth with 7.5 tackles for loss—two and 3.5 of which, respectively, came in one dominant game against Ole Miss on Oct. 5. He was even a load to block on plays where he didn't record a stat, as Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandijo can attest.
Lawson was curiously omitted from the SEC's All-Freshman team last season, especially when you consider that he was named a Sporting News Freshman All-American. Still, no one can deny his potential, and he was named the Tigers' Defensive Newcomer of the Year:
Lawson won't be able to replace Ford's production alone, however, so the continued development of fellow rising sophomore Elijah Daniel is worth monitoring this offseason.
Unlike Lawson, who was a 5-star prospect on the 247Sports composite and the site's subjective rankings, Daniel was just a 4-star on the former but a 5-star on the latter. Either way, he too played to his rating by seeing the field as a true freshman and finishing with 2.5 sacks.
If he and Lawson both take the projected sophomore jump, they should, alongside the steady presence of Owens, do a reasonable job of replacing Ford in the rotation.
The unit might not be quite as good—especially toward the start of the year—but the production Ford left behind will at least feel like a pinhole instead of a crater.
There is just one more part of replacing Ford.
As Lawson and Daniel transition into bigger roles, players behind them must transition into the roles they held last year. Part of what made Ford so good was the depth of Auburn's defensive line. Because teams feared Lawson so badly, Ford couldn't be zeroed in on.
Gimel President seems the most likely contributor among returnees from last season, although incoming 4-star recruits Justin Thornton, DaVonte Lambert (via JUCO) and Andrew Williams will get a chance to impress defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and associate head coach Rodney Garner in the fall.
If one or two players from that quartet step up, the depth behind Owens and Lawson—which would also include Daniel—will be reasonable. If not, the Big Three will have to play more snaps than they'd prefer, which could hinder their down-by-down production.
Head coach Gus Malzahn, however, is confident that lost depth along the line will not be an issue.
"We lost some seniors, but we really feel like we filled our needs there," Malzahn said, according to Greg Ostendorf of ESPN.com. "We got some outstanding impact players."
Ford's fourth-down sack of Manziel last year was remarkable for so many reasons. The pace of that fourth quarter had reached NASCAR proportions, including but definitely not limited to the Aggies' final drive, which at one point reached the Auburn 18-yard line.
Who Must Step Up Most to Replace Dee Ford?
Part of the reason Ford still had something in the tank was because...well, he's Dee Ford. Anyone who saw his Senior Bowl performance or pro day workout understands what that means. Physically, the guy is a freak.
But the other reason Ford still had something left in the tank was team-related: because Owens, Lawson and Daniel could spell or create a rush without him.
He didn't need to do literally everything.
Even if Lawson comes out this season and is immediately as good as Ford in 2013—which won't happen, though he has a shot to be that good as a junior—replacing Ford's production will be a team effort.
Just like everything else in college football.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT.