The offense grabbed all of the headlines during Auburn's 2010 national championship run and last season, as the Tigers rebounded from a 3-9 season to come within 13 seconds of another crystal football.
But don't be blinded by the flashy offensive stat sheet. One of the keys to both title game runs was a deep defensive line that rotated throughout games, allowing the Tigers to stay fresh for a full four quarters.
Despite the loss of starting defensive end Dee Ford and starting defensive tackle Nosa Eguae, the Tigers are set up to replicate their success in the trenches in 2014.
Sophomore Carl Lawson will likely step in for Ford at end.
The former hot-shot recruit from Milton, Georgia, had 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks as a true freshman, and he had the key stop on Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon on a fourth-and-short late in the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl deep in Auburn territory. He's quick off the ball and can be a force off the edge, but strong and fundamentally sound enough to hold his own against the run.
He'll likely line up opposite rising senior LaDarius Owens, who had five tackles for loss and two sacks last year. Backing them up will be sophomore Elijah Daniel, a former 4-star defensive end who played defensive tackle in passing situations as a freshman last year.
Lawson and Owens were banged up a bit in spring, which allowed Auburn to work on their "rhino package" more than it initially intended. In that package, starting defensive tackle (8.5 tackles for loss, three sacks) slides outside to end.
Injuries are never good, but the ability for head coach Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to work on depth and, more specifically, a new package in addition to Johnson's base 4-2-5 and pass rush packages, will benefit his team in 2014 according to Malzahn (via 247Sports.com's Justin Hokanson).
Malzahn hopes the rash of spring injuries helped develop depth and be a “blessing in disguise” next fall.— Justin Hokanson (@JHokanson) April 30, 2014
Inside, Wright is joined by sophomore Montravius Adams, Angelo Blackson, Ben Bradley—all of whom played significant snaps last season. On top of that, senior Jeff Whitaker, who sat out all of last season with a knee injury, will return for his final season on the Plains.
That's a lot of depth and experience inside, and will allow the defense to mix-and-match packages based on situations and keep the entire unit fresh for 60 minutes.
More help is on the way too.
Justin Thornton is a 4-star defensive end who'd fit perfectly as a designated pass-rusher in passing situations, 4-star defensive end DaVonte Lambert is a junior college transfer who could provide immediate help against the run and drop down inside in passing situations, 4-star defensive tackle Dontavius Russell could earn some snaps inside and 4-star end Andrew Williams is quick off the edge but also fundamentally sound.
Auburn's defensive line holds the key to a playoff run.
Defense doesn't win championships anymore, "just enough" defense wins championships. That's a moving target based on the offense a team runs on any given year. Malzahn has produced 11 1,000-yard rushers in eight seasons as a college coach, and for the first time in his college coaching career, he has the opportunity to work with a returning starting quarterback—senior Nick Marshall.
It's safe to assume that Auburn's offense will be potent again in 2014.
Because of that, all the defense has to be is opportunistic, and the best way to be opportunistic is to generate pressure with four.
If the Tigers can do that, don't be surprised if they find a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.
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