Fast forward to this preseason and the hopes are much different for the defensive line heading into the 2012 season. With Brian VanGorder bringing in an aggressive defensive scheme for the linemen with the first order of business to make plays in the backfield, the mood is one of excitement for Mike Pelton's charges.
One of the players hoping to make his mark this fall is sophomore defensive tackle Gabe Wright. Playing last season as a true freshman for the Tigers in mostly a reserve role, Wright is part of a large group of interior defensive linemen looking to win a starting job this preseason. With juniors Jeffrey Whitaker and Kenneth Carter, senior Jamar Travis, sophomores Angelo Blackson and Devaunte Sigler, along with redshirt freshman Jabrian Niles and true freshman Tyler Nero all in the mix, Wright said the competition is fierce for the Tigers.
"It's like no other in the country I can promise you that," Wright said. "We've got three or four deep rotations and like Coach VanGorder has said, he doesn't really know who the inside guys are and he doesn't really know who the two ends are. We're just so deep. It's exciting to be in a room with such talented guys, to know that you're going to get the best out of every one of them."
It's a different feel for the defensive tackles this time around than it was heading into 2011. Short on depth Wright said the freshmen all knew they would have to play right away because they were needed so desperately. This time around however he said it's a much different story.
"It puts a high level of focus on you that you should put on yourself," Wright said. "You've got to stay in tune. Last year me, Angelo and Sig, I'm not going to say it was given to us, but we pretty much knew that we had to come in and play. This year we're stacked. We're not freshmen anymore and we don't have that excuse. We've got to learn and do things the right way. Coach VanGorder is bringing in this new vibe, we call it ‘Back to the Auburn Way'. Last year we took some terrible losses. We're trying to change the whole mentality of the Auburn defense and it definitely starts up front."
In Wednesday's first scrimmage of the preseason one of the players that was singled out for his play was junior linebacker Jake Holland. Expected to be the leader of the defense in 2012, Holland has been saddled with the most difficult task on defense this fall, being VanGorder's right hand man on the field. Wright said seeing Holland step up and take over Wednesday was a huge boost for the defense.
"It helps a lot," Wright said of Holland's play. "Jake's our Mike (middle linebacker), our lion like Coach VanGorder says. "In Coach Roof's defense we all looked to the sideline and got our calls. In this defense we huddle up and Jake is going to tell us what the play is. If he messes something up then it's ultimately on him. He's the head guy. He looks out for everyone. He has to set the strength call to get us lined up and he makes most of the calls. Like Coach VanGorder says, he's the smartest guy on the field and he has to know everyone's positions. He's really been doing a good job with that."
After missing much of spring practice with an injured foot, Wright said he's full speed and ready to go at the moment. Because he was out when the rest of the defense was learning the new defense he said it has taken him some extra time and work to get caught up, but he feels good about where he stands at the moment. With the first game against Clemson just over three weeks away Wright said the goal now is to take his game to a higher level and he's prepared to do just that.
"I feel good," Wright said. "I'm not sure if I even reached my peak before the spring," Wright said. "I can't say I'm getting back into the groove because I don't know yet what my peak is. All I can do is keep my weight down, stay in shape, and keep learning. I'm still a young guy, but I'm not having any excuses this year. We've got juniors and seniors on this defensive line now and leaders that are stepping up. Coach Pelton said the best thing about this camp is that he doesn't have to scream and yell because the competition is there, it speaks for itself. If you don't come out ready there is another guy behind you that will jump in and do the job."