2008 Auburn Football Preview: Interior D-Line

In our first installment of a series of articles previewing the 2008 Auburn football Tigers, we take a look at the interior defensive line.

Auburn, Ala.--The job isn't an easy one for Coach Don Dunn. As Auburn's interior defensive line coach he must replace leading tackler Josh Thompson and ultra-talented Pat Sims from a 2007 unit that was among the best in the nation last season.

The good news is that a bevy of talented players return in the middle for the Tigers led by Playboy Preseason All-American Sen'Derrick Marks.

Playing inside as a freshman, Marks moved to defensive end last season and was a very big part of the success on defense for Auburn. Starting all 13 games, Marks finished the year with 43 tackles, nine tackles for a loss and two sacks. A physical presence who showed last season he can also get in the backfield and make plays, Dunn says Marks should be a building block for the defense in 2008.

"I think he has a better understanding of the defense and what it takes," Dunn says of Marks. "We can still move him outside. The advantage that we do have is hopefully on third down situations we've got some pretty good kids on the edge, we can move him back out but with Antonio (Coleman) and those young kids like Mike Goggans it gives us a lot of options.

"If we can have our two outside rushers as defensive ends and then Sen'Derrick and then move another outside guy inside then you're talking about four really good rushers on third and long passing situations," Dunn adds. "That's something we would like to do is play him some at both."

Jake Ricks heads into the fall as the starter at noseguard for the Tigers.

Along with Marks the Tigers have a large group of players coming back from last season and also one unexpected addition to the depth chart. Jermarcus Ricks, Mike Blanc and Zach Clayton are all players that have seen action for Auburn, but are still inexperience in big-game situations. A player that could help in that department is Tez Doolittle, who Dunn says he's hopeful will be full speed after surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon last season and earned a sixth year of eligibility.

"Like we've talked before there wasn't a lot of experience as far as actual playing time," Dunn says. "They all had played but not a whole bunch of snaps. With Pat Sims coming out early it kind of put an alert out that somebody is going to have to step up right away. I'm sure a lot of those kids thought Pat was coming back and there wasn't as much pressure on them to develop both off and on the field. The spring was very important but unfortunately for Jake Ricks he broke his hand. That is two springs in a row that he's missed. That's not good. He seems to be doing well.

"I thought Mike Blanc had a very productive spring," Dunn says. "I'm looking for a lot of positive things out of him. Moving Sen'Derrick back inside really helps us. He's got a lot of experience and leadership and football knowledge and the kids look up to him. That was a real plus. I thought Zach Clayton did some good things.

"With the news that Tez is going to be back hopefully he'll be able to help us down the road. I don't know if he'll be 100 percent when two a days start, but that's some added experience, some added depth, and a guy who has been around and knows what's going on.

"Going into two a days right now it would be Sen'Derrick Marks at the three-technique and Jake Ricks at the nose. You really can't separate Jake Ricks or Mike Blanc. I would say they are both starters right now. Then with Zach backing up and with Tez if he comes back that's another plus. They can all play both positions and that's a plus. Whenever Tez comes back that will allow us to move Jake or Mike to the three-technique. You've got four pretty solid guys there and Zach can play both positions. There are a lot of good things, but we're still concerned about experience and playing time other than Sen'Derrick."

Mike Blanc has a chance to be a big-time player for the Tigers.

Another player who could help the Tigers this coming fall is redshirt sophomore Darrell Roseman. Injured for much of his first two seasons and coming off of foot surgery last year, Roseman is a physical presence who could provide depth if he can stay healthy.

"Darrell Roseman, I'm very excited about him," Dunn says. "He had that surgery and he's never been healthy. He looks good from what I understand talking with Coach Yox (Kevin Yoxall). He's another plus, another young kid who is strong and athletic. His problem is experience. They all kind of fit in there the same. They've been around but they haven't played a lot of snaps. He's a kid we're excited about and hopefully he's 100 percent healthy."

Zach Clayton showed improvement in his redshirt freshman season.

With a changing of the guard up front in the starting group, the Tigers will also be changing in the coaching ranks with Paul Rhoads taking over for Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator. Dunn says so far the adjustment period has been relatively simple for both the coaches and the players.

"It was a very smooth transition," Dunn says. "He's a very good coach. He's a very smart person. The kids like him. He's going to do a great job for us. I was in an advantage because I have worked with Paul before and I knew his demeanor and I knew what he demands and his intelligence. I thought the kids really bought into it. Everything we did we talked it out thoroughly. Is it good if we do change? Are the kids going to be able to pick it up?

"His number one concern was the players," he adds. "We can make all the changes and have a playbook 15-feet thick, but if they don't understand things it's not worth a nickel. Everything we did was about how the kids would react and respond and how they would pick it up. We made a few changes and I'm sure we'll make a few more. As far as terminology and teaching we tried to keep it pretty much the same so it was a very smooth transition."

Tez Doolittle is back for his second senior season after injuring his Achilles tendon in last year's preseason.

As the time closes in on preseason practices scheduled to begin on Aug. 2, Auburn is considered one of the favorites in the SEC West and is ranked by many as a Top 10 team for 2008. If that is to be the case the defensive line will have to become a force once again for the Tigers. Dunn says that is very possible, but there is a lot of work to be done between now and opening night.

"We've got to get a lot of reps, let them see a lot of things," Dunn says. "We've got to get them as much live, good on good against the offense as we can. We need to push them to the limit like we always do. I feel like we're kind of starting over in that aspect with the toughness part even though they have it. You had Josh Thompson there for so many years and you had Pat Sims who had been around a long time. You had Quentin Groves. Those guys were kind of old hands. They knew what to expect.

"Even though these young guys have played some, other than Sen'Derrick and A.C. they haven't really been pushed to the point of it's their time," Dunn points out. "I've got to get that across to them with a lot of reps and a lot of extra time to get that mental toughness, whatever it takes. Talent-wise we've got good players, I'm just concerned about the experience."

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