Senior Quentin Groves has graduated and has high expectations of being an early round NFL draft pick. The Tigers will miss his pass rushing skills and big game experience. However, position coach Terry Price will get to work with two experienced starters and other defensive ends with promise.
The experiment of moving Sen'Derrick Marks outside to end from tackle last season proved to be a major success. The 6-2, 295-pound junior-to-be was in on 43 tackles last year with nine stops for losses, including three sacks and seven QB hurries. His size on the corner made the Tigers more difficult to run against.
"Sen'Derrick may end up going inside, I'm not sure," Price says. "It's so early, I don't know yet, we just had signing day so I don't know how we are going to line up."
Price and fellow defensive coaches Don Dunn and James Willis are now reporting to a new coordinator with Paul Rhoads taking over for Will Muschamp.
If Marks stays at end, he will be the guy to beat for one of the starting end spots. On the other side another player who was a redshirt sophomore last season, 6-2, 244 Antonio Coleman, is the favorite to top the depth chart.
Coleman matched Groves in total tackles with 38 last season and produced 18 tackles for lost yardage compared to seven for Groves. Coleman led the Tigers in sacks with 8 1/2 and his 15 QB hurries were second on the team to the 23 by Groves.
"He played well for us last year at times," Price says of Coleman, who started seven games after taking over the job when Groves went down with a foot injury.
"Obviously, he still has a lot to learn as far as the position is concerned," Price says of Coleman. "The great thing about him is that he plays hard, he plays fast, he plays physical and I think he will continue to get better.
"This year we are going to lean on him as more of a leader for our group," Price adds. "We hope we get some leadership qualities out of him on top of improving his game in all areas."
One of the pleasant surprises for the 2007 defense was the play of newcomer Antoine Carter, who provided a spark off the bench as a pass rusher. Playing in all 13 games, he was in on 16 tackles, including four for losses. He was credited with 1 1/2 sacks and six QB hurries.
"Antoine Carter is a young man who played last year as a true freshman and has gotten a little bigger and stronger since last year," Price notes. "Hopefully, his play will improve. He has to become a more physical player. That's one of the things that we are going to try to work on this spring. We are trying to be more physical and to be stronger at the point of attack where runs are concerned."
Terry Price makes a point to Antoine Carter, who was named to the Coaches All-SEC Freshman team.
Another returning backup defensive end is Michael Goggans, who will be a redshirt sophomore this fall. The converted tight end contributed nine tackles last season, including two for lost yardage with one sack.
"Goggans played some for us last year as a freshman," Price says. "He has a lot of improvement to do in all areas, but he is a physical kid with a good motor. We will have to see how he fits into what we are doing on defense, but I think he will be a good fit as far being a physical football player. He just has to improve his overall technique."
Auburn was able to redshirt defensive end A.J. Greene last fall. The six-foot-five end with good quickness from Brentwood Academy in Tennessee will try to make a move for playing time in spring drills that are scheduled to begin Feb. 28th and run through the March 29th A-Day Game.
"A.J. Greene is a big guy, probably over 270 pounds and he is a physical kid," Price says. "He redshirted last year. Has a lot of potential physically. Hopefully, he will step up and do what he needs to do to improve his game and get his first taste of what spring practice is all about. He looks like he works hard, and we will give him some opportunities this spring to see where he is at."
Price will also be instructing newcomer Raven Gray, a five-star rated recruit who transferred to Auburn in January from Copiah-Lincoln junior college in Mississippi. Unfortunately for Gray, he won't be able to participate in spring contact drills because he is still recovering from knee surgery to repair an injury he suffered during his sophomore season.
"Raven will be out there observing, going to meetings, learning what to do and when his time comes he will be out there and we will see what he can do," Price says.
Raven Gray is shown in action last fall in junior college.
Copiah-Lincoln head coach Glen Davis says that Auburn has added a very talented player to its roster in Gray. Davis says Gray was dominant in the Mississippi junior college league and should continue to improve at AU.
"With Coach Rhoades coming in, he will have his opinion on who fits into what position so it will be a true new evaluation period for the whole group and we will see how everybody fits in," says Price, who notes he is looking forward to getting back out on the football field.
"We are just looking to improve and adapt to what we are doing on defense," Price adds. "Obviously, we are not going to do a whole bunch of things different, I don't think. What we need to make changes on and do differently, hopefully we do it well and get high effort and a high level of play from our group.
"Even though we have to replace one of our ends, we obviously have a bunch of good candidates who played last year for us," Price says. "Spring will be the kind of testing ground to see who will step up at both positions."