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Auburn Football: Defensive Line Depth Could Be Tigers' X-Factor in 2014

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Auburn Football: Defensive Line Depth Could Be Tigers' X-Factor in 2014
USA TODAY Sports
Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel

When you break records, you are going to get attention.

Auburn's offensive stars such as Tre Mason, Nick Marshall and Greg Robinson received most of the spotlight last season in the 2013 turnaround from SEC cellar dwellers to conference champions.

Many of the season's most notable moments—Marshall to Coates in the Iron Bowl, "The Miracle at Jordan-Hare" against Georgia and C.J. Uzomah's leaping touchdown grab to beat Mississippi State—were offensive plays that will go down in Auburn history.

While Auburn's offensive coaches and players deserve a lot of credit, the Tigers defense often gets overlooked for its role in the jump from 3-9 to 12-2 after just one season.

The Tigers not only saw significant boosts in wins and offensive production in 2013, they also showed remarkable improvement in several defensive areas:

Auburn Defense: 2012 vs. 2013
2012 2013
Interceptions 2 (123rd in nation) 13 (53rd)
Sacks 22 (77th) 32 (31st)
Passes Defended 42 (105th) 68 (24th)
Opponents' Red-Zone TD% 65.31% (94th) 50.00% (12th)
Opponents' 3rd Down Conversion% 40.83% (68th) 33.00% (13th)

CFBStats.com

Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 system was installed to combat the increasingly popular spread offenses that had ravaged Auburn defenses in previous seasons. The defense inserts an extra defensive back while keeping a four-man front for pressuring the quarterback and stopping the run.

And for Auburn, that traditional four-man line was instrumental in its defensive renaissance.

"For us defensively, it all starts up front," defensive end Nosa Eguae said prior to the 2014 BCS National Championship Game. "Our main concern is stopping the run. When it's time to get after the quarterback, we get after the quarterback and affect him as well."

The Tigers constantly rotated defensive linemen onto the field and all across the line last season. An end in Johnson's defense is taught to play on both sides of the line, and tackles are not divided into traditional and three-technique positions.

USA TODAY Sports
Auburn DC Ellis Johnson

"Our philosophy, we want to play left and right," Johnson said shortly after he was hired at Auburn. "We slide the front to get in our different looks as opposed to flip-flopping."

This heavy movement on the front four led to 11 different defensive linemen appearing in at least 12 games for the Tigers last season.

Four of those—first-round NFL draft pick Dee Ford, Eguae, Craig Sanders and Kenneth Carter—are no longer on the Plains.

But the Tigers have senior returning starters LaDarius Owens and Gabe Wright in addition to sophomore standouts Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson.

Auburn also welcomes back senior defensive tackles Angelo Blackson, Ben Bradley and longtime veteran Jeff Whitaker, who missed all of 2013 with an injury.

While injuries were not a problem for Auburn's defensive line last season, they definitely affected spring practices. 

USA TODAY Sports
DE Carl Lawson sacks Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace

Johnson and defensive line coach Rodney Garner tried to combat the rash of injuries across the defense by installing what Wright nicknamed "the Rhino package," a front four made up of defensive tackles.

"As a defensive unit, we are so athletic," Lawson said. "Everyone on d-end and d-tackle can go back and forth between two positions."

Lawson is currently sidelined from summer workouts after undergoing a knee surgery earlier this month. Auburn coaches have not released any details about the injury and recovery time for Lawson, who missed the annual A-Day Game this spring with a knee bruise.

"Carl's the kind of young man that he's going to work his tail off to get back as quick as he can, [but] it's an opportunity for somebody else to step up," Garner told the Opelika-Auburn News' Alex Byington. "That's the way you have to approach it. We've got to get guys ready to play."

Enter the class of 2014.

Auburn signed four defensive linemen in 2013—Bradley plus the high school trio of Adams, Daniel and Lawson. Despite only losing four after the 2013 season, Auburn signed six defensive linemen this February.

With the enrollment of in-state defensive end Justin Thornton on Wednesday, all six are currently on the Plains.

A new NCAA rule that allows eight hours of coach supervision is giving Garner an early look at his new talent for 2014, and he told AL.com's Joel Erickson he is impressed with what he has seen so far:

I think all the guys, they're all sitting there watching, and I think they can tell, athletically, they're good. Now, what are they going to do once we put on the pads, once you start the install and putting all of that stuff together, you know, it's going to be played out differently. But from an athletic standpoint, they all have good athleticism. That's a great start.

In a recovering positional unit that constantly rotated between veteran talent and highly rated newcomers last season, the opportunity to impress the coaching staff in the summer will be important for these six fresh faces.

Auburn's two transfers from Georgia Military College, DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence, will both look to become the next Nick Fairley or Ben Bradley.

Lambert's versatility at both end and tackle has made an impression on Garner, but the defensive line coach likes several off-the-field qualities of the nation's No. 1 JUCO defensive lineman. 

"He has demeanor and character that reminds me of Jeff Whitaker," Garner told Auburn Undercover's Phillip Marshall. "I'm excited about his leadership and what he's going to bring to the room."

Lawrence, on the other hand, brings a much-needed boost of agility and speed to the Tigers' interior line.

"He has a lot of ability," Garner told Marshall. "I think he can definitely help us in the rotation, especially with the athleticism he brings to the position. I think we got more athletic inside than what we were. I'm excited about his development."

Garner also said he feels good about the four true freshmen, who "all have good skill sets."

Like Adams, Daniel and Lawson—who combined for 49 tackles with 12 of them for loss last season—they will get their opportunities for early playing time.

The trio of the 6'5" Justin Thornton, the 6'4" Andrew Williams and the 6'6" Raashed Kennion bring a valuable injection of size to the Tigers' defensive end unit. They will be joined by 300-pound defensive tackle Dontavius Russell, who flipped from Georgia to Auburn last December.

These bigger newcomers will be looking to make similar-sized impressions this fall for head coach Gus Malzahn and the rest of the coaching staff.

"Each year, you look at the seniors you're losing, and you try to project depth and your needs," Malzahn said. "This is the first year where our guys really got a whole year to go after the body type and the type of athleticism that goes with each position. That's what's exciting for our coaches."

 

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats taken from CFBStats.com. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.com.

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