While there is still plenty to learn about the Tigers' defensive line after 15 spring practice dates, one player who definitely caught the eyes of his new coaching staff is senior defensive end Dee Ford. A relentless worker on and off the field, Johnson says Ford earned his stripes this spring.
"Dee got a lot better as the spring progressed," Johnson notes. "He is our best and, at this point, our only pass rusher that is giving us the kind of pass rush we've got to get to be successful and compete with some of the top teams in this league.
"He improved a lot in his run fits, especially at the point of attack," the coach says. "He had been used to flip-flopping left and right and we kept him on the left side. He likes that better. He feels more comfortable on that side, but, overall, he probably was one of the three to four or five guys you'd say had an outstanding spring."
On the other side the position is definitely up for grabs after Kenneth Carter made the move outside to defensive end after playing his first three seasons at tackle.
Kenneth Carter is back at defensive end for the first time since he played at Greenville High School.
Locked in a battle with fellow senior Nosa Eguae, Carter made some strides according to Johnson and gives the Tigers a little something extra playing on the edge. At the end of spring Carter was No. 1 on the depth chart ahead of Eguae.
"I think that the thing there is that those two guys (Carter and Eguae) are competing with each other and that makes them have to work harder," Johnson says. "They have improved enough--I think Rodney would agree with this--they've improved enough that somebody's going to have to come in and beat them out. There's not going to be a job waiting on somebody."
Moving LaDarius Owens to linebacker and an injury to Keymiya Harrell in the spring impacted the depth available at defensive end for spring practice for the Tigers. Senior Craig Sanders got plenty of work on the left side behind Ford while Justin Delaine worked on the right side. With incoming freshmen Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel both expected to challenge for playing time right away as well as defensive tackle Montravius Adams at tackle, Johnson says things could get interesting this fall.
"I do think we got some young players coming in who have some skill sets that these guys don't have that can probably pass rush on the edge a little bit better," Johnson notes. "How soon they would be ready to play as an every-down player is a big question mark with any position, but I think they'll be role players for us pretty early."
At defensive tackle Adams will try to work his way into a rotation that features senior Jeffrey Whitaker and juniors Gabe Wright and Angelo Blackson as the top three performers coming out of spring practice. With Carter available to play inside as well and Jabrian Niles and Tyler Nero capable of providing some depth, Johnson says the numbers are there and the production just needs to continue to increase.
"They're all four, I think, playing a level right now you can almost get a good rotation going on a Saturday," Johnson says. "Niles has had some good days. We've got good depth in there and that's going to help us I think in a physical league like we play in.
"It's also going to help us practice more physically each day.," the defensive coordinator adds. "Sometimes you have to pull off on them when you get low on bodies and that's one thing we didn't have to worry about. That's a position obviously there's a lot of banging going on every day."