All-SEC end Dee Ford will certainly be missed with his pass rushing ability. Nosa Eguae, who helped stabilize the front four last fall by moving inside from end to tackle, was the most experienced player on the 2013 team and will be also be missed.
The Tigers must replace another senior, Kenneth Carter, who contributed at both the tackle and the end spots for four seasons as well as Craig Sanders, who played at end and on special teams.
Defensive line coach Rodney Garner's decision to give extensive playing time last season to the backups means the Tigers will have a variety of options to play up front using players who have extensive game experience.
"I am coaching a lot of good young men who are willing to work hard," Garner said of his defensive line group, which made major improvement from the 2012 to the 2013 seasons when Garner took last season after returning to his alma mater from the University of Georgia.
"The difference from where these young men were at the end of the season compared to where they were when I was hired has been so rewarding for me personally as an Auburn man," Garner said.
"I wouldn't say we arrived yet," Garner added. "We still have so much more room for growth and so much more development. It is encouraging to me, as we go forward working with these guys, to see where we can take this. I believe they have an opportunity to be a special group, especially those three young guys."
The Tigers are scheduled to begin spring drills on March 18th and the annual A-Day Game is set for 2 p.m. on April 19th.
Wright is expected to get a look at earning playing time at end this spring to give the Tigers the option to go with a larger front four to defend power-oriented, run offenses.
Owens is expected to be limited this spring due to an injury that has had him in a walking boot.
Spring training should be a golden opportunity for Keymiya Harrell to show Garner and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson what he can do. Last season as a redshirt sophomore Harrell was expected to push for a starting spot, but he suffered a torn ACL in spring drills and missed the entire season. When full speed the former Dallas County High star has the potential to be an effective pass rusher.
Rushing the passer is something that Carl Lawson did well as a true freshman. He finished the season with four sacks with 14 solo tackles and six assists. Not a tall end at 6-2, 258 pounds, Lawson succeeds with his combination of quickness and strength.
Carl Lawson saw plenty of prime-time action last year.
Another athletic defensive end who made a mark as a freshman is 6-2, 264 Elijah Daniel, who finished with 2 1/2 sacks and nine tackles for the SEC champions. A player the Tigers have considered moving inside to tackle where he lined up last year in obvious passing situations, Daniel is expected to line up at end this spring with the Tigers not as deep at those spots as they are at the tackle positions.
Gimel President, who will be a redshirt sophomore this fall, returns at end where the Tigers will also look at 6-4, 240 Chase Robison, who redshirted last fall after transferring from Texas Tech. He was a three-star prospect as a high school senior in Memphis.
There should be plenty of competition for playing time at the tackle spots with the return of starter Wright and former starter Jeffrey Whitaker, who sat out during the 2013 season recovering from a knee injury. Whitaker is full speed and ready for action this spring.
"I am excited about Jeff," said Garner, who noted that the tackle is an outstanding leader on and off the field. "If Jeff hadn't been here I don't think the transition would have been as smooth because he was one of the only guys in that room from day one who bought in and never questioned anything I did or anything said. He understood and stayed the course."
Another possibility to start is Montravius Adams, who made 20 tackles in 2013 as a true freshman with one sack. At 6-4, 305 pounds with good quickness, he has the potential to improve those numbers substantially this fall.
Montravius Adams is shown in action in his first college game vs. Washington State.
More experience at defensive tackle comes from Angelo Blackson, who started four games last season and made 16 tackles. The 6-4, 310 lineman will be a senior this fall as will 6-1, 294 Ben Bradley, who was in on 14 tackles with one sack last season after transferring in from junior college.
When the Tigers take the field for preseason drills in August more help is expected from the 2014 signees. The group includes juco transfers Davonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence along with high school seniors Justin Thornton, Raashed Kennion, Dontavius Russell and Andrew Williams.
What to Watch: Keymiya Harrell's return to full speed would be a big boost at end where the Tigers are going to miss Dee Ford's quickness and big-play potential. If Harrell comes out of spring drills ready to contribute that will be a major plus for the Tigers.
If the trio of 2013 signees--Adams, Daniels and Lawson--makes progress this year the front four has the potential to be a strong group. "If they continue to work hard, I think they have a chance to develop into elite SEC defensive linemen," Garner said of Lawson, Daniels and Adams.