AUBURN, Ala. — Even without the likes of Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae, Auburn's defensive line is loaded with players who made their mark on the field in 2013.
Just look at the Tigers' two-deep depth chart for the season opener against Arkansas.
Gabe Wright started 11 games at defensive tackle last season, but the versatile senior is going to be a first-team defensive end, where he will be backed up by fellow senior and former starter LaDarius Owens.
Sophomore Elijah Daniel, who featured in all 14 games of Auburn's SEC Championship run, will make his first career start opposite Wright. His backup, DaVonte Lambert, might be a newcomer, but he spent 2013 standing out from the pack at Georgia Military College as the nation's No. 1 JUCO defensive end.
Senior Angelo Blackson, a starter at defensive tackle, played in every game for the Tigers in 2013, along with backups Ben Bradley and Montravius Adams.
"It’s almost lineman by committee," defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. "We’ve got about eight or nine guys there, and some of them have had better performances and have more experience, but I don’t think [defensive line coach Rodney Garner] has got any concern of putting any one of nine guys on the field right now."
But even with all those players who are coming off successful seasons, the last name on the two-deep defensive line—a starter at defensive tackle—did not play a single snap in 2013 due to injury.
That doesn't matter to Auburn's coaches.
They have full confidence in Jeff Whitaker.
"Jeff is one of our leaders," head coach Gus Malzahn said. "He’s got a lot of experience. He’s healthy now, and I think that’s a big factor. He’s got experience in this league."
Although he has not recorded a tackle since Nov. 10, 2012, Whitaker will be one of the first defensive linemen on the field for the final season opener of his collegiate career.
Jeff Whitaker at Auburn's Fan Day pic.twitter.com/JVZYpYwZTm— Auburn Gold Mine (@AUGoldMine) August 10, 2014
Johnson hinted at Whitaker's surprise push to become a starter Sunday night, and Malzahn confirmed it Tuesday with the team's official depth chart release.
The fifth-year senior, who is jokingly referred to as the "old man" of the defensive line by his teammates, has been a leader for the Tigers' defense throughout the last several seasons.
"He's one of the guys we look up to all the time," Blackson said. "He's one of those guys who is a great leader. It's great to have him another year. I came in after him, and leaving with him, and it's a blessing."
Whitaker arrived at Auburn in the fall of 2010 as one of the nation's top defensive tackles. The former 4-star wasted no time in cracking the rotation as he played in all but one of Auburn's 14 games, including the BCS National Championship win against Oregon.
As a sophomore, Whitaker was named a starter prior to the 2011 season opener against Utah State and did not let go of that role.
However, the end of Gene Chizik's tenure in 2012 coincided with the beginning of some major health woes for Whitaker.
After starting the first six games of the season, he missed three consecutive games with an injury. When he came back to action against his home-state Georgia Bulldogs, the Warner Robins native failed to make any impact on the field for the woeful Tigers.
Following a complete overhaul of the coaching staff and a full offseason of work, Whitaker was sidelined with an ACL injury the week of the season opener against Arkansas. He originally planned to return against Texas A&M, but he was forced to redshirt the entire 2013 campaign.
DT Jeff Whitaker is out for the season and will redshirt. Had surgery on leg in preseason.— Brandon Marcello (@bmarcello) October 8, 2013
"Life has a mean right hook," Whitaker told AL.com's Joel A. Erickson in April. "It came down to me making a mature decision. This was the right decision in my mind, but it was not probably the most popular decision I wanted to hear at the time."
But adversity was nothing new for Whitaker, who watched from the sidelines as his team made a return to the national title game. His mother died before he started high school, and his grandmother had recently passed away.
An injury and a redshirt season seemed small in comparison for Whitaker, and he decided to come back in 2014 for one more year with his teammates.
"I was focused on coming back and taking this opportunity," Whitaker said earlier this fall. "Redshirting was a decision I had to dig deep into making, which I feel like was the appropriate decision. I felt like it was a positive decision at the end of the day, which I think is the best decision. The best is yet to come."
Whitaker's teammates said his return has boosted the entire defensive line, which already has a lot of experience back for the new season.
"He just makes us better," Adams said. "Jeff is a great leader and just brings all of us together. I talked to a lot of guys from that 3-9 season, and that’s what they said they were lacking, everybody wasn’t together. With us all being together, it just makes everybody better."
But, with his return to the top of the depth chart, Whitaker has proven he is more than just a feel-good comeback story or a veteran voice on the sidelines—he still has something to bring to the team.
With former defensive tackle Wright moving out to end, the Tigers can definitely use the size of the 6'4", 322-pound Whitaker now that he's feeling "like the old Jeff again."
Arkansas' power-rushing, ball-control offensive style calls for more bulk from Auburn's defensive line heading into Saturday's season opener. Whitaker will provide extra power against a team that will be content to keep pounding at the middle of the defense.
When asked about how he will matchup against the Razorbacks' offensive line, the big-bodied Whitaker's response was simple and enthusiastic, per the Montgomery Advertiser's James Crepea:
Jeff Whitaker: "I love this kind of ballgame."— James Crepea (@JamesCrepea) August 26, 2014
Whether Whitaker is moving into the starting lineup permanently or for a one-off advantage against Arkansas, the veteran tackle knows he will get his chances this season in Garner's heavily rotating line.
"The rotation is good, and I think it's good competition as well," Whitaker said. "It brings out the competitive nature. You root big for everybody, but you see somebody do something good, you want to come in there and do the same thing. And then you feed off of that.
"If someone in there is playing good ball, it's like tag team. I'm a big wrestling fan. It's like tagging in, tagging out."
Even after a devastating injury and long road of recovery, this veteran underdog has shown he hasn't tapped out of the match yet.
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.