It all starts at the defensive tackle position where Auburn is still in very good shape from a depth standpoint even with the loss of junior Devaunte Sigler because of a violation of team rules. Seniors Jeffrey Whitaker (6-4, 307) and Kenneth Carter (6-4, 289) return as do juniors Gabe Wright (6-3, 299) and Angelo Blackson (6-4, 308). All four players have starting experience at Auburn and have the talent to improve by leaps and bounds under new position coach Rodney Garner.
Angelo Blackson had the most production of the defensive tackles in 2012
The good news is that the group has nowhere to go but up after a struggle in 2012. The four players combined for just 77 total tackles, 13 ½ tackles for a loss and two and a half sacks in 12 games. To put that into perspective Nick Fairley had 60 tackles, 24 tackles for a loss and 11 ½ sacks by himself in 2010.
In addition to that group Auburn will also have sophomore Jabrian Niles (6-2, 297) and redshirt freshman Tyler Nero available in spring practice as well. A talented pass rusher that has an explosive get-off on the ball, Nero (6-2, 277) came close to playing last season before shoulder surgery ended his freshman season.
Perhaps the biggest addition on the defensive line comes from junior college signee Ben Bradley. Already in school and working out, the 6-1, 305 Bradley is a physical interior player that should create even more competition at a position ripe for improvement.
"I think it's definitely going to help him have a chance to contribute," Garner says of Bradley being able to practice this spring. "From a conditioning standpoint, from a physical standpoint, being able to get in that weight room and get stronger, to be able to have that spring practice under his belt, to learn the system, those 15 days of spring ball, I definitely think it's going to be advantageous for him.
"We're counting on him to bring some value to the defensive line, to the defense," he adds. "Right now it's very difficult. It's very difficult on all of them and it needs to be difficult. Iron sharpens iron. We've got to put them in the fire, we've got to see how they react, and we've got to get them sharp."
Outside at the defensive end position, Auburn will have to replace NFL bound Corey Lemonier after he turned pro following the 2012 season, but the good news is there are plenty of capable bodies for Garner to work with starting with a trio of seniors in Dee Ford, Nosa Eguae and Craig Sanders.
Even though he was banged up for part of his junior season, Ford (6-2, 246) showed that he's capable of becoming a big-time pass rusher for the Tigers because of his speed from the edge. With six sacks and six tackles for a loss in 2012, Ford's work ethic should be on full display this spring as he tries to win a job against a large group of challengers.
A contributor since his redshirt freshman season, the 6-3, 268 Eguae had a disappointing 2012 season when he made just 23 tackles and had just one sack in 12 games. Fellow senior Sanders (6-4, 257) played in just nine games and finished with nine tackles and one tackle for a loss. Both have plenty of ability and have leadership qualities that Garner is looking for out of his veteran players.
Nosa Eguae is one of the leaders for the Tigers
Heading into his junior season, LaDarius Owens (6-2, 260) is coming off a season in which he played in 11 games and finished with just 11 total tackles and three for a loss. A physical player that has continued to develop as a defensive end, Owens should be in the mix this spring and could play either side for the Tigers.
The same is true of sophomore Keymiya Harrell. Perhaps the most physically gifted of any of the defensive ends, the 6-4, 260-pounder played in just four games last season and finished with two tackles. However, even in his limited role Harrell showed a knack for getting in the backfield and making plays. That makes him a player to watch in the spring with a new coaching staff looking for difference makers on that side of the ball.
Also in the mix at defensive end this spring will be junior Justin Delaine and redshirt freshman Gimel President. A 6-5, 253 junior, Delaine is finally getting back to full speed after a knee injury in 2011. On the other hand President (6-4, 244) drew rave reviews last fall while redshirting and gives Garner yet another athletic body at defensive end this spring.
As he prepares for his first spring back on the Plains, Garner says he's anxious to get on the practice field March 27 and get a look at his players for the first time. He says that's when he'll begin to get a feel for what he's got and not before.
"I'm going to evaluate them on their body of work that they do under my watch," Garner says. "Whatever the film says, who is productive, who deserves to play, that is who is going to play. It's not going to be a popularity contest. The media is not going to decide it. The alumni are not going to decide it. Nobody is going to decide it but that player. And that's where we're at, and I've got no idea where any of them are until we get out there."