Caldwell Column: Defensive Line Holds The Key

Auburn's success in 2013 may hinge on the play of the defensive line.

When you look at the most successful eras of Auburn football there are common denominators that helped the Tigers win games. While athletic offensive players and powerful running attacks were always an ingredient and solid quarterback play is a must, dominating on the defensive line was perhaps the biggest key to making it happen for Auburn.

That's something that Pat Dye believed in and it showed in the 1980s. Winning 11 games in 1983 with a veteran and talented defensive line, Dye's teams ran off three consecutive SEC Championships from 1987-1989 and the play up front on defense was a big reason why.

Led by Tracy Rocker, Benji Roland, Ron Stallworth, Nate Hill, Aundray Bruce, Craig Ogletree and others, the Tigers controlled the line of scrimmage and shut down opponents' running games. That forced teams to be one-dimensional and opened up pass rushing opportunities for Auburn.

Tracy Rocker was at the center of some of Auburn's best defensive lines

It wasn't just the starters that got it done, however, as Robert "Pig" Goff, Fernando Horn, Brian Smith, David Rocker and others contributed off the bench before several became starters. That is the group that Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner played against every day in practice while an offensive lineman for the Tigers, and what he wants to get back to on the Plains someday.

When he was hired Garner didn't waste any time in telling how important he thought depth was in building a defensive line in the SEC. It's something that was a strength of his lines at Georgia and something he wants at Auburn.

"I'd like to have five inside guys and five outside guys ready to play," Garner said in the spring. "That's what I want to have ready to play. I think that's what you need in this league because of the physicality of this league and the level of competition and the strength of schedule and all of that. I think you need five guys to play inside, five guys to play outside.

"I need a total of 10 guys so we've got some work to do to develop that. Obviously early on, in that five, those top two, they'll be playing pretty much equal reps because we're going to run to the ball and we're going to play with the same intensity in the fourth quarter that we did in the first quarter. So I've got to get depth, build depth and build quality depth."

After Dye the Tigers continued that trend in 1993 with Gary Walker, Mike Pelton, Alonzo Etheridge, Willie Whitehead and a host of others setting the tempo on defense for an undefeated 1993 season.

Three seasons ago Auburn featued a dominant defensive line led by All-American Nick Fairley on the way to the 2010 BCS National Championship, but he was far from the only steady performer for the Tigers. Depth was one of the keys to success that season as well with Zach Clayton and Mike Blanc performing well in the middle and Antoine Carter providing a push from the edge along with Michael Goggans.

Nick Fairley led a productive defensive line in 2010.

Heading into the 2013 season Auburn appears to have the depth to take some serious strides forward, but first the starters have to take their game to another level and stay healthy. If Angelo Blackson, Gabe Wright, Jeffrey Whitaker, Dee Ford, Nosa Eguae, Kenneth Carter and Craig Sanders can play at a different level this season it will allow the depth to shine in a relief role.

To open the season the Tigers will be without the services of Ford following a preseason knee injury. Unsure of his return date, Blackson notes the entire group will have to pull together and the young guys will need to step up when called upon.

"At the same time it is bad, but it's a chance for the young guys to step in," Blackson said. "We've got a lot of young guys coming in at end. Dee is going to play. He's going to be healthy. It's just a chance for the young guys to get in and get reps. It is what it is."

That would give newcomers such as Ben Bradley, Elijah Daniel, Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams a chance to provide a spark off the bench early in the season and not be forced to take on too much too early. With added depth available from converted linebacker LaDarius Owens, Jabrian Niles, Tyler Nero, Justin Delaine and Gimel President, the numbers are there for Auburn's defensive line. Now it's time for the production.

The group will have a chance to make an immediate impact this season as the Tigers take on high-flying Washington State to open the season on Aug. 31 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Under the direction of coach Mike Leach, the Cougars will rely on the passing game more than any team Auburn will face this season.

In 2012 the Washington State Cougars averaged 330 passing yards per game and they should be even better this season with the return of a deep and talented wide receiving corps. That means Auburn must get pressure on quarterback Connor Halliday early and often. Last season WSU quarterbacks were sacked 57 times. If Auburn hopes to start the season 1-0 they need to do much of the same out of the gate.

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