With Nick Fairley, Zach Clayton and Mike Blanc no longer patrolling the middle for the Auburn defense, the 2011 group fell short of picking up the slack last season as the Tigers struggled to slow the run in the middle and failed to get enough push from the defensive tackle position with just two of the team's 22 total sacks coming from the interior. That's something that Brian VanGorder is looking to change this year by installing a more aggressive approach up front.
Perhaps no player should benefit more in 2012 than Whitaker. A starter in all 13 games last year and managing just 25 tackles and two tackles for a loss with no sacks, the junior has lost more than 20 pounds and is quicker and more explosive coming off the ball this year. That should help him make more plays behind the line of scrimmage, a huge point of emphasis in spring practice.
Gabe Wright showed signs of being a playmaker last season for the Tigers
While Whitaker's job looks to be secure heading into two-a-days in August, the other spot is still very much open after returning junior and part-time starter Kenneth Carter missed spring practice after having shoulder surgery. Things got even more muddled when returning sophomore and part-time starter Gabe Wright was injured early in the spring and missed the remainder of the practice sessions. Last season the two combined for 33 tackles with Wright adding a sack and three tackles for a loss.
Both should still factor into the mix for playing time, but their absence allowed senior Jamar Travis and sophomores Angelo Blackson and Devaunte Sigler an expanded role in the spring. All three responded by making improvements with perhaps Travis the surprise of the bunch. Earning praise from VanGorder following the spring, the little-used Travis has a chance to add some depth this season for the Tigers.
Two of the more impressive athletes on the team, Blackson and Sigler had plenty to learn in 2011 as both got introduced to the defensive tackle position after playing different spots in high school. With a year under their belts and more maturity, both should be improved and it wouldn't be a surprise to see one challenge for a starting job this year.
One of Auburn's few redshirts last season, Jabrian Niles has a chance to help out with the depth as well this season. He got plenty of reps in the spring and if he can continue to work on his explosiveness off the ball then he could get into the mix as well. At 6-2, 292, he has the size to be a force in the middle when things click into place.
Out of the high school ranks Auburn will get some help from incoming freshman Tyler Nero. At 6-2, 285 Nero is an athletic prospect who has the quickness to make plays in the backfield. Reminiscent of former Tiger Jimmy Brumbaugh, Nero uses his agility and speed to penetrate and make plays. While he likely won't be a threat for a starting job, Nero has a chance to add even more depth to what should be a better defensive tackle position in 2012.