Editor's Note: These lists feature our thoughts on the most important players for Auburn heading into the 2016 football season. We are counting down 16 key Tigers for the offense and 16 more for the defense as Coach Gus Malzahn's team prepares to face Clemson in the season opener.
Auburn, Ala.--All you need to look at to see the importance of Carl Lawson to the Auburn Tigers' defense is how the group played with him on the field last season versus without him. Even without him being close to full speed at the end of the 2015 season the Tigers picked up the play on that side of the ball, but to get a feel for what a full speed Lawson means you have to go back to the first half of the season opener against Louisville.
For the entire year Auburn’s defense made 19 sacks with 54 tackles for losses. In the first half against the Cardinals the Tigers had three sacks and eight tackles for losses alone. That shows the importance of having Lawson on the field because it puts added pressure on the opposing offense.
Showing the burst in the spring that was missing late last season, Lawson was the unquestioned leader of the defensive line and his energy and professionalism will be important this fall. With Auburn facing a who’s who of talented offenses this season, the defense will need to be in top form to show the type of improvement they’re looking for.
Best Case Scenario: A healthy Lawson plays the full season and it’s a big impact for the Auburn defense. We’ve seen flashes of what he’s capable of dating back to his freshman season against future NFL first rounder Laremy Tunsil, but a full season of that kind of effort is something Auburn fans have been waiting to witness out of Lawson. If that happens this year it’s a different world for the Tigers on defense.
Worst Case Scenario: Having gone through two different leg injuries the last two years, Lawson has to prove he can not only stay healthy, but that the burst he showed as a young player is still there. A physical player, Lawson isn’t the biggest of guys and has to depend on his quickness off the edge to give him an advantage. If he’s slowed any at all that could impact his game in a big way.
Career Comparison: Although Lawson is a different type of player, the hope for him is that he can stay healthy and have a big season as a pass rusher. That was the recipe that Dee Ford used to become a household name and a key for the Tigers in 2013. With just nine and half sacks for his career entering the year, Ford had 11 sacks alone in his final season on the Plains and was one of the premier pass rushers in the country. If Lawson can follow that pattern then Auburn’s defense could be one of the big surprises in 2016.
Quote: “Any time you have an impact player, whether it's offense or defense, you know, you really build around that impact player's strengths,” Gus Malzahn said. “And he's a game-changer. When you have a guy like that, it changes everything.
“And it really makes people better than maybe they are, or it hides some of your deficiencies. He's got that ability. And, you know, so he's had the ups and downs with his injury. And I think from a coach's standpoint you learn. You either got to prepare with or prepare without him, without an impact player. You know, he's got that ability. I really expect him to stay healthy.
“Like I said earlier, he's at his best. He's at his fastest and quickest and strongest he's ever been. He's very competent. He's a wonderful young man.”