Travis Williams and Stanley MClover (right) should be key players for the Tigers again this season.
Auburn, Ala.–-Gone from Auburn's defensive line are the two defensive ends that Coach Terry Price looked to in the most physical of situations.
Facing running situations or teams that physically try to whip you, Price would look for 2004 seniors Bret Eddins and Doug Langenfeld. This season he won't have that luxury so he says he begins this spring looking for players ready to take that next step forward and prove to be tough enough to get the job done every down.
"It's going to be tough (to replace Eddins and Langenfeld)," Price says. "Bret was a three-year starter for us and Doug started for us off and on for the last two years. Those guys provided a lot of leadership and a lot of physical football play. They were physical at the point of attack and helped our run defense tremendously. Those guys will be very much missed."
Marquies Gunn will open spring drills as the first stringer on the strongside heading into spring practice.
While the loss of two seniors will hurt the unit, there is no doubt the talent is back to form one of the top defensive end tandems in the SEC with juniors Stanley McClover and Marquies Gunn as well as sophomore Quentin Groves all having valuable playing experience in the defense. Price says that there is not a starting job guaranteed going into spring practice because he wants everyone to continually prove themselves and strive to get better every day.
"We've got some young guys coming back for us that were backups last year," Price says. "They showed some good things in their time on the football field, but overall we're going to need some guys to get a lot more physical as far as the run game and at the point of attack. That's one thing we're going to miss from our seniors last year.
"Right now there is no set depth chart," Price adds. "We're going to start off with a group of guys out there. Our strongside ends will be Marquies Gunn, Christopher Browder and Octavius Balkcom. Our weakside ends will be Stanley McClover, Quentin Groves and a walk-on kid Haley (Brandon Haley is a 6-3, 223 pound redshirt freshman from Lakeland, Fla.). That will be the group to work into. Losing two starters, there is an open competition. I don't know who is going to be starting on either side. Those guys will go out there and compete and fight it out. We'll see how it works out in the end."
Quentin Groves is one of the top pass rushers in the SEC heading into his sophomore season.
The obvious starting point when looking at the defensive ends is on the weakside where both McClover and Groves will start the spring. Both had outstanding first seasons for the Tigers, earning All-SEC honors while finishing 1-2 in sacks on the team.
For the year McClover (6-3, 255) made 44 tackles with 10 tackles for losses and seven and a half sacks. Groves (6-3, 243) also finished with seven and a half sacks and 10 tackles for losses and added 29 tackles. Price says they showed some good things in 2004, but have to improve this season now that they're going to be counted on for even more help on defense.
"Physically they are both weakside guys because we play a strongside and weakside defensive end," Price says. "You try to have your best rush guys on the weakside and your best run players on the strongside. That's how we have it divied up right now.
"We're still like last year in that we have the capability in certain situations to get both of those guys on the field at the same time. We'll do that when it's necessary, when down and distance dictates that. We'll still do that, but just for playing the run and every single down and playing technique, that's where both of those guys need to be."
Christopher Browder should flourish in 2005 after a year in Auburn's strength and conditioning program.
While McClover and Groves get most of the talk, Gunn has quietly hummed along to become the most consistent of the group and most physical heading into the spring. Last season he made 14 tackles with five for a loss and also added three sacks. At 6-4, 245 pounds, Gunn is still a little light for the strongside, but Price says that a year in the weight room and another spring practice should have him ready by the time Georgia Tech comes to town to open the 2005 season.
"Of the guys coming back he's the most physical player," Price says of Gunn. "That's why he's going to start off on the strongside. When you're playing the strongside in this defense you have to be a physical, tough football player. He's got that part of it, he's just trying to get bigger and stronger. All those guys could afford to gain a few pounds, especially the guys on the strongside. I know he's working on getting bigger and stronger through the off-season program. He's a guy that got better as the season progressed. As a physical football player he needs to get bigger, stronger and improve to help our football team."
Octavious Balkcom worked at both linebacker and tight end on the scout team last fall.
Backing up Gunn will be Browder and Balkcom, however, there is also the possibility that Kyle Derozan could be moved back to defensive end during the spring, but that has not been decided yet. The 6-3, 265-pounder played in nine games at end for the Tigers in 2003.
A junior who played sparingly last season after transferring from junior college, Browder made 10 tackles and also added two sacks. At 6-5, 241 he has size, but still needs to get bigger and stronger to be an every down player in the SEC. The same is true of Balkcom, but Price says that he's got the frame to be good down the road and he's anxious to see him in action this spring.
"He's a guy that wanted to come play defensive end knowing we were losing two seniors last year," Price says. "He's a 245-pounder, a tall, rangy guy that fits into the body type you're looking for as a defensive end. He'll be learning the position for the first time this spring so he'll have his growing pains, but he's eager to learn and eager to play. I look forward to working with him and seeing what he can do this spring."
With plenty of depth and talent to work with Price says that he'll be able to focus on improving the players at the point of attack without having to worry about pushing the players too hard. That's important for a coach that believes in being physical. By the end of the spring Auburn's defensive ends may know just how much that belief means to Price and the Tigers' defensive coaches.
Stanley McClover puts the hurt on LSU quarterback Jamarcus Russell.
"Overall, without a doubt, our goal is to be a more physical unit," Price says. "Last year and years past, whenever we needed to go out there and stop the run and be physical up front Doug Langenfeld and Bret Eddins were the guys. Now that those guys are gone this group needs to step up and be a more physical unit. That's something we're going to stress this spring with those guys.
"This time of year, without having a chance to put the pads on, you're just trying to bigger weight wise and get physically stronger," he adds. "When we get the pads on we're going to try to bloody their noses and get physical. That's when you show how things are going and how physical you want to be as a football player. I have put that in their mindset in the offseason. From the first day in pads on we're going to get after it and bloody their noses and become better football players. We're going to be good players in all facets of the game, including against the run."