HOOVER, Ala. — Head coach Gus Malzahn confirmed some of Auburn fans' worst fears in his opening statement at SEC Media Days.
Sophomore defensive end Carl Lawson is not going to be available for the start of the 2014 season.
"He injured his knee the last week of spring practice," Malzahn said. "Carl is working extremely hard, and he's determined to come back towards the end of this year."
With Lawson expected to miss a considerable amount of time in 2014, the spotlight is now on the rest of Auburn's defensive linemen.
While the loss of Lawson will be a major early test for the defense, one of Auburn's veterans believes his team can handle it.
"[Lawson] is a great player," center Reese Dismukes said. "But there are other great players behind him. We're hoping he gets back as soon as he can."
One of the players who could see an immediate increase in playing time is fellow sophomore Elijah Daniel.
Auburn's heavy rotation along the defensive line last year benefited not only Lawson but another former 5-star end in Daniel. The Indianapolis native appeared in every game last season, and three of his nine tackles were for a loss.
With an entire offseason under his belt, Daniel should make more of an impression alongside his experienced teammates in Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 defense.
|Auburn's 5-Star Defensive Line Class in 2013|
|Tackles||Tackles for Loss||Sacks|
"Defensively, we all focused on really just the techniques and fundamentals of our base defense to get more consistent," Malzahn said. "I really feel like we accomplished that."
Daniel and the rest of the Tigers will try to replace what defensive lineman Gabe Wright called Lawson's "freaky" athleticism as the former 5-star recruit rehabs from the injury and surgery.
"He's a phenom," Wright said. "He's definitely a guy who could be three and done."
Montravius Adams showed his versatility at several positions toward the end of Auburn's SEC championship season and the beginning of spring camp.
The spring's heavily hyped "Rhino package"—named after Wright, who goes by @NineORhino on Twitter—used Wright, Adams and several other Tigers defensive tackles at both defensive end positions.
Johnson and defensive line coach Rodney Garner originally installed the set to combat injuries to Auburn's defensive line in the spring and look ahead to some of the SEC West's top power-running offenses.
The rhinos may get more chances to run this season with the possibility of a long-term Lawson absence.
"That whole freshman class brought some talent and some things that I really haven't ever seen before," Wright said. "I like to think of myself as athletic, but [the sophomores] are guys who could play all four positions on the defensive line."
Becoming more athletic has been a personal goal for the defensive tackle, who said he cut his weight down to 284 pounds in the spring.
The slimmer Georgia native now has set his sights on becoming an all-around contributor instead of just a bruising defensive tackle in his final season on the Plains.
"I wanted Coach Garner to put me at end last year, but he said I wasn't mentally ready yet," Wright said. "I don't second-guess him, but I will be ready if I'm called upon this year. There's no doubt about that."
If Johnson and Garner want to go with another youth movement like they did with the trio of Lawson, Daniel and Adams last season, they have several options.
Auburn's trio of true freshman defensive ends—Justin Thornton, Andrew Williams and Raashed Kennion—are all 6'4" or taller, bringing the size and athleticism Auburn's coaching staff wants in an increasingly bigger defense.
While he has been impressed with the newcomers in workouts, Wright said he is especially excited about seeing his new teammates at fall camp.
"I just can't wait to get out there and do what we do—get after it," Wright said.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.