However, with a mix of both young talent and seasoned experienced at both the tackle and end positions, the early season question mark could turn into a mid-season strength if a few of the inexperienced players can develop into top-level SEC performers.
Defensive tackle coach Don Dunn will have to replace Demarco McNeil, who was a four-year starter at the nose tackle spot, but experienced junior T.J. Jackson has seen plenty of battles in the trenches and is running number one at the spot heading into two-a-days.
"We are expecting big things from him," Dunn says about the 6-1, 304-pounder from Opelika High School. "He has played a lot of football for us. This is probably the best condition he has ever been in physically. He has always had a problem with his abdomen--or it seemed like going into the fall practice he always had some type of little injury. He had a good spring and he is doing well in the off-season."
T.J. Jackson is shown in action as a sophomore vs. Ole Miss.
However, it is not a given that Jackson will be the starter. A 6-0, 295-pound, redshirt freshman Josh Thompson is nipping on Jackson's heels and looked strong in spring workouts showing off his strength, aggressiveness and a great work ethic. "Right behind him is Josh Thompson, who really had a good spring and is really pushing T.J., which is really what you want at that position," Dunn explains. "You have got two guys who are really competing at a position and the competition is really excellent."
At the three technique, the Tigers will have to replace Spencer Johnson's 38 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Heading into fall practice a newcomer to the position is holding onto the starting spot. Six-foot-five, 285-pound Jay Ratliff was moved from defensive end, where he played as a junior, to tackle during spring workouts and took over the starting role.
"Jay will be a senior and he has gotten bigger, getting up to about 285-286, which he needed to do coming out of spring," his coach notes. "He played a lot of football at defensive end and he is really going to help us in there."
Josh Thompson made a move for playing time with good play in spring drills.
Behind Ratliff will be the Tigers' most versatile lineman in Wayne Dickens. Dickens, who is a 6-1, 297-pound junior from Lakeland, Fla., came into Auburn as a highly touted defensive line recruit and has steadily improved at both the nose and tackle positions. However, as a junior Dickens needs to step his game up again if the Tigers are going to be at their best up front.
"He has played a lot for us and Wayne can play both positions, which makes him very valuable," Dunn says about the junior tackle. "He can play nose guard or the three technique. Wayne is right at about 295. He has had a good off-season. He has done everything we have asked as far as getting himself ready to go."
However, behind those four guys the experience and depth runs out and Dunn notes that one more player needs to emerge from the pack. "I am real happy with those four guys," Dunn explains. "Other than that maybe some of the new guys will step up. I am looking forward to seeing Pat Sims get on the field and right now he probably would be the one guy that would have a chance to play. But, right now, going into the fall we have four for two positions and I would like to get one more--I would like to be able to have a five-man rotation. "
Wayne Dickens (96) is shown during a practice this past spring.
Other than the 6-3, 295-pound Sims, redshirt freshman Tez Doolittle, who is currently listed at defensive end but worked at nose guard some during spring drills, could add depth. Also, junior walk-on Todd Hughes got some solid reps at tackle during the spring and newcomers Tyronne Green, Korey Raymond and Neil Brown could be called upon to play tackle or noseguard if needed. However, Raymond is expected to get his first look at tight end.