Andrew Williams (above) could be in line for more playing time in 2017.
Auburn, Ala.--One of the keys for Auburn’s improved defensive performance in 2016 was the play of Coach Rodney Garner’s defensive line. Heading into the spring football practice the group will look much different for the Tigers with the losses of Montravius Adams, Devaroe Lawrence, Carl Lawson and Maurice Swain putting the depth to the test.
The good news is that plenty of experience returns led by redshirt junior tackle Dontavius Russell. A two-year starter and a player wh NFL scouts raved about this season because of his play in the middle taking on double teams, Russell has a chance to take his game to the next level and be more productive at the point of attack. Last season he made 29 tackles and had six quarterback hurries.
Also returning is end Marlon Davidson, who started every game for the Tigers as a true freshman a season ago. Showing a maturity beyond his years and the hustle to make plays from sideline to sideline, Davidson made 38 tackles with two and a half sacks and six tackles for lost yardage in 2016. With a year under his belt, the Greenville native could be one of the leaders for the defense despite his young age.
Marlon Davidson earned Freshman All-SEC honors in 2016.
Both have work to do to keep their jobs and will be challenged by a deep and talented group of players both at tackle and end.
That starts in the middle where redshirt junior Andrew Williams had a breakout season last year with three sacks and three tackles for losses. With the ability to run the passer and make plays in the backfield, he should have a chance for bigger and better things with more playing time.
Also in the mix at tackle is big Derrick Brown. As a true freshman last year he split time between tackle and end, finishing with 11 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery. Trimmed down to 310 pounds, Brown could be ready to do bigger things for Auburn because of his combination of size and athleticism.
Redshirting a season ago as a true freshman, Antwuan Jackson has the size (6-2, 303) to help out immediately in the middle behind Russell. Also in the mix at tackle in the spring are redshirt sophomore walk-ons Tyler Carter and Gary Walker Jr. along with Jauntavius Johnson. More help at tackle could be coming from Tashawn Manning, who is expected to go through spring training for the first time after recovering from leukemia after being diagnosed with the disease in the fall of 2015 as a high school senior.
Perhaps the biggest issue is finding Lawson’s replacement as the team’s top pass rusher, something that was an issue for the Tigers during his injuries in both 2014 and 2015. First up is junior Jeff Holland.
Jeff Holland (4) is expected to push for a starting role.
Lawson’s backup and on the field together on third downs in Auburn’s rabbits package, Holland managed a pair of sacks and three quarterback hurries a season ago and showed more explosiveness off the edge. Now the challenge is to finish and get the quarterback on the ground, something that was an issue a season ago.
Behind him is a talented redshirt freshman Nick Coe, senior Cameron Toney and perhaps even true freshman linebacker Chandler Wooten. A guy to watch should be Coe, a 6-6, 265-pounder with all the tools to be a difference-maker on defense. Toney is a steady performer who has performed his best coming off the edge while Wooten’s speed could make him an interesting guy if given a look.
Behind Davidson on the other side the Tigers have a pair of experienced performers in juniors Byron Cowart and Paul James. Combining for just nine total tackles and two tackles for losses after dealing with injuries, both need to have a big spring to be in line for playing time when the Tigers open the season against Georgia Southern.