In addition to having to replace three of the four starters up front, the Tigers are doing it with a new defensive line coach. Mike Pelton has returned to his alma mater to take over for Tracy Rocker, who is the only member of Coach Gene Chizik's coaching staff to leave for another job.
Rocker joined the Tennessee Titans last winter after coaching two seasons at Auburn where he was an All-American.
One of the major reasons Pelton faces a big rebuilding job at tackle is that SEC Defensive Player of the Year Nick Fairley is gone. Fairley was selected by the Detroit Lions in the first round of the NFL Draft. Last season as a junior Fairley was in on 70 tackles and made 11 1/2 sacks with 21 quarterback pressures.
Coach Mike Pelton
The other starting tackle, Zach Clayton, was drafted by the Rocker's Titans while the top backup, Mike Blanc, signed as a free agent with the San Diego Chargers. Blanc, Clayton and Fairley were key reasons why the Tigers led the SEC in run defense last season.
"We are going to be young at defensive tackle, but I think we have some kids there with ability," says Ted Roof as he begins his third season as Auburn's defensive coordinator. "We don't have a lot of game experience, but you can't get that any other way than by playing. I think we have the right guys there.
It is just a matter of becoming more experienced," Roof adds. "Because we are young up front I think you will see this group getting better as the year goes along. Last year we were so productive there with Nick and Zach.
"Nick got all of the attention, and he certainly earned it, but at the same time I thought Zach Clayton may have been the most underrated player in America," the coach contends. "He did all of those dirty jobs for the other guys and was such a consistent player. Mike Blanc did some really big things for us, too, including the safety in the championship game.
"With Kenneth Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker we got some guys who got their ears wet last year," Roof says of the sophomores who finished spring training at the top of the depth chart at the tackle spots. "As a result of that, we should see a high rate of improvement this year."
Whitaker and Carter should be physically better equipped to handle the action up front in the SEC after a year in Coach Kevin Yoxall's strength and conditioning program. That should particularly benefit Carter, who was undersized last year. This fall he should play in the 6-5, 290 range.
Whitaker saw action in all 14 of Auburn's victories on the way to winning the national championship last season as he made four solo tackles with three assists. Carter made five solo tackles with one assist while seeing action in eight games.
Like Roof, Pelton says he sees the potential Whitaker and Carter bring to the position. "It is going to be vital for us that they both step up," Pelton points out. "Those two guys are very capable."
The other returning scholarship tackles, Derrick Lykes and Jamar Travis, are both juniors, but neither has seen much playing time on the defensive line. Lykes saw action in just three games last season and finished with two solo tackles and one assist. Travis played in all 14 games, but most of his action came on the punt coverage unit. He made two tackles in 2010.
If Travis and Lykes want to see their playing time increase they will have to outperform a trio of true freshmen who have been on campus this summer getting a head start on preseason practice. Angelo Blackson from Red Lion Christian Academy in Bear, Del., Jabrian Niles from Davidson High in Mobile and Gabe Wright from Carver High in Columbus, Ga., could play early and often. In fact, there isn't a position on the team at which a true freshman has a better chance of contributing immediately than defensive tackle.
"Jamar Travis had a good spring and Derrick Lykes had a good spring, but we are counting on our freshmen at tackle to come in and compete for playing time," Roof says. "That is something that has got to happen.
Jamar Travis is shown in a pass deflection drill last season.
"You can't live with two or three guys in there because that position is so physical you have got to play a lot of guys," Roof adds. "You need to play a lot of guys, but at the same time those guys have got to earn it. It is a big (preseason) camp for our freshmen. We will see where we stack up."
Niles and Wright reported to campus in May immediately after their high school graduations to get an early start on their college experience while working out with their new teammates. Blackson arrived at Auburn early in the summer and is also trying to position himself for early playing time.
Niles was considered a defensive end prospect by many when he was in high school, but Auburn saw his potential to grow into a tackle and that is exactly what he has done. He is up to 6-3, 296 and while he isn't as big as Blackson and Wright, that is plenty big enough to play tackle in the SEC this year if the freshman shows he has the toughness and strength to contribute early.
Wright, who is 6-4 and 320 pounds, will be one of the larger defensive tackles the Tigers have played in recent seasons. The heavily recruited prospect has high expectations for contributing right away and he was told during recruiting that the opportunity would be there for him on the 2011 Auburn team and there is no doubt that is the case.
Competition-wise Blackson is making the biggest jump up in class coming into the SEC after playing football at a small private school in Delaware. At 6-5, 315 pounds the freshman won't need to add size to be big enough to play tackle.
The Tigers head into preseason drills with a much better situation at end than at tackle despite losing a pair of seniors who played a lot last year. Antoine Carter was a full-time starter and Michael Goggans opened the season as a starter before Nosa Eguae moved into that spot as a redshirt freshman.
Eguae, who is up to 264 pounds, plays with a lot of intensity, something that has earned him the respect of his teammates and coaches. That was underscored when Chizik chose Eguae to represent Auburn at SEC Media Days.
"He started playing much more confidently at the end of the year than he did earlier in the season," Roof says of Eguae. "As he became more confident he didn't have to think as much and he was reacting better. He is going to be one of the old men on our defensive line this year as a redshirt sophomore. He has done a good job leading with that group."
Dee Ford will be a junior this fall.
While Eguae is the favorite to start at one end, junior Dee Ford and sophomore Corey Lemonier, a third team preseason all-league pick by the SEC coaches, are competing to emerge at the top of the depth chart in what should prove to be a close competition. Both Lemonier and Ford are among the quicker defensive ends to play for Auburn. Ford was voted defensive MVP of Auburn's 2011 A-Day spring game.
"Corey is a speed guy and one of his goals in the spring was to become more physical against the run and I thought he did that," Roof says. "He has the ability to be an excellent pass rusher for us and so does Dee Ford. Dee had a great spring and really made some strides."
A bigger defensive lineman to watch this season is 6-4, 270 sophomore Craig Sanders, who is expected to swing between end and tackle. He put on a good show last season on the kickoff coverage team after making the jump to Auburn from Class A Ariton High School.
Corey Lemonier and Craig Sanders are shown at spring practice.
"Craig Sanders is the kind of kid you want on your football team," Roof says. "He is one of the core guys. Everything he does is about the team. I know our coaches and players have a lot of respect for him. I anticipate seeing him do some good things for us this year."
Pelton agrees with Roof about Sanders and says, "If you could coach 12 guys like him, you would be a really great coach."
Joel Bonomolo was expected to play last season after transferring to Auburn from a California junior college, but he was limited by an injury and held out. He will be a redshirt junior this fall.
Justine Delaine, who arrived at Auburn from small school power Linden High, redshirted as a freshman and gives Pelton another very quick end to consider for playing time.
Joel Bonomolo rushes the quarterback in Auburn's 2011 A-Day contest.
"Joel had a good spring and a good offseason," Roof says. "It is going to be up for him to compete and earn a spot in the rotation. The same is the case with Justin Delaine. He flashed during spring practice. He is going to have an opportunity to show how far he has come and earn a spot to get some playing time."
A pair of in-state freshmen add to the depth at end with Keymiya Harrell from Dallas County High joining Devaunte Sigler from B.C. Rain in Mobile. Both are considered good athletes and could play early, too, but the need for immediate help at end is not at the same level it is at tackle.
Both of the 2011 end signees have good size. Harrell is 6-5, 235 with the frame to carry a lot more weight. Sigler has grown since his senior season of high school and is up to 6-4, 267.
The Tigers will have at least two new starters at linebacker and three new starters in the secondary so getting the rebuilt defensive front playing well is a huge priority for Chizik's third Auburn team.