"Defensive line, that was a strength of ours last year," points out Head Coach Gus Malzahn. "We lost some seniors. We really feel like we have filled our needs there. We've got some outstanding impact players that Coach Garner is really excited about."
For the past 15 seasons Auburn has primarily schemed with a four-man front under three different head coaches. During that period the defensive line has averaged 17.9 tackles per game. During the past four seasons the group has failed to reach that average, including an average of 16.8 tackles during the 2013 campaign.
Despite failing to reach the average tackles per contest established over the past 15 seasons, the 2013 Auburn line was one of the most productive front-fours during this time period. This productivity level is the direct result of Garner's approach to preparation. The coach quickly established a "blue-collar" work ethic among his players, demanding consistency in execution and effort.
Coach Rodney Garner makes a point at practice.
"For some it's been pointing out, ‘Hey, this isn't good enough,'" Garner said. "Sometimes guys have a hard time wanting to accept reality or accept the constructive criticism. It's never meant to be destructive, but there's certain standards that you need to play at to be considered an elite defensive lineman in this league."
His players responded to the challenge last season as the line continued to improved as the season progressed.
Despite averaging only 16.8 tackles per game, Garner's group was about quality rather than quantity. The 2013 line produced 59.5 tackles for lost yardage, second best among Auburn defensive fronts over the past 15 seasons. This included a ratio of a tackle for loss every 3.95 tackles, which was third best during the past 15 seasons. The group was responsible for 29 1/2 sacks, the second most by an AU line from 1999-2013. The 2013 front four was also responsible for 92 quarterback hurries, the most during the past 15 years.
One of the primary reasons for success up front during 2013 was Garner's rotation. This allowed players to quickly develop along with maintaining a fresh group late into games. Auburn had nine different defensive linemen record at least 14 tackles during the season, the most since 1998. The experience gained from 2013 will help offset the departing seniors from last season.
Because of injuries during the spring the Tigers experimented by cross-training tackles Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams at end. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson liked the look enough to note the Tigers could use a "big package" at times this fall against power running teams such as Auburn's season-opening opponent, the Arkansas Razorbacks. "They have gotten a lot of work at that, and I think that will be something we will utilize," Johnson said.
Auburn finished the 2013 season ranked No. 62 nationally in run defense but it was an improvement from its No. 100 ranking in 2012. The Tigers will face eight opponents that averaged over 185 yards rushing per game last season.
During the 2012 season Auburn's tackles accounted for 78 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 2 1/2 sacks. Under Garner last season the tackles accounted for 125 stops, 25 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. With six new defensive linemen coming into the fold, expect Auburn to continue a heavy rotation in 2014.
Last season Auburn pulled the redshirt tag off of three freshman linemen, creating a grand opportunity for Carl Lawson, Adams and Elijah Daniel. This season Garner will have four incoming freshmen as well as two junior college transfers to broaden his options. Davonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence will transfer in from Georgia Military College and Garner said that both have the potential to contribute early. Lawrence has three seasons to give Auburn after redshirting one season.
Last season's trio of true freshman accounted for 49 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and 25 quarterback hurries. The Tigers would probably prefer to build their foundation around eight linemen with at least a year of experience, but to have the depth Garner and Johnson are looking for this fall it will probably mean early playing time for the incoming recruits.