Auburn, Ala.--Nobody was smiling any bigger than defensive ends coach Terry Price when the Auburn Tigers walked off the field on New Year's Day in Orlando, Fla., following a win over the Penn State Nittany Lions.
After struggling through a season when his already-thin defensive end corps fought through injuries to succeed with heart and effort, the coach knew brighter days were on the horizon with the addition of fresh bodies for spring practice and the hopes of a banner signing class in the future.
The quest for those days begins in March when the Tigers open spring practice with increased expectations for the coming season. Returning a big group of starters on both sides of the ball, Auburn is now in a position in which the Tigers haven't found themselves in quite a while. They are going to be the hunted and not the hunter.
"I expect tremendous improvement," Price says of his hopes for spring practice. "I thought we had one proven player last year in Reggie Torbor, who missed a lot of time with injuries, but when he was in there he played well. Overall the other players that we had definitely need to pick it up in terms of increasing their knowledge of our defense, our defensive schemes and increase their productivity that we haven't had at our position.
Senior Reggie Torbor hits MSU quarterback Kevin Fant during last season's game.
"Right now we'll just try to get our feet on solid ground and get some guys healthy and hopefully have a chance to go in there (2003 season) with a solid two-deep and some maybe three-deep when we get some guys here in the fall," Price adds. "The biggest thing is just improvement in all areas. Reggie has been our most consistent guy, but we expect good things from him and he performs on game day. We have to get more production from the other guys that play defensive end. He can't be the only playmaker for us."
Missing three games with injuries, being slowed in almost all of the others and playing through pain all season, Torbor managed just 26 tackles last year, but came through late in the season after getting close to 100 percent by sitting out practices during the year. A terror off the corner in the pass rush, his still managed three and a half sacks last season to give him nine for his career. He returns this spring as the unquestioned leader of the group and along with Jay Ratliff and Bret Eddins gives the Tigers three solid veterans to work with at end, something that hasn't been the case in recent years.
Bret Eddins takes a break during the Ole Miss game.
"He improved towards the second half of the year," Price says of Eddins. "He played very, very hard and showed some improvement. He did some good things down the stretch. I think spring is obviously a situation where he needs to elevate his game even more.
"I think Jay Ratliff needs to do exactly the same thing. Jay is a guy that missed the majority of the spring last year with injuries and missed the second half of the season as far as practicing is concerned with a shoulder problem. I expect both of those guys to make a jump this spring. They need to for our defense to be good."
Jay Ratliff, who moved to defense from tight end last spring, hopes to improve on an injury-plagued sophomore season.
In addition to the veterans, Price also has two talented players who will join the playing rotation this spring and both look to add a lot of athletic ability to the position. Junior college transfer Tony McClain, who was a teammate of tailback Brandon Jacobs, joined the team during bowl practices and showed the ability to get upfield in a hurry in pass rushing drills. He has excellent size at 6-3, 270 pounds.
Freshman Kyle Derozan was redshirted last fall after suffering a shoulder injury that kept him out of much of the practice time during the season. Early on he was perhaps the best pass rusher in practice behind Torbor and a year in the weight room has done him some good as he heads into his first spring practice.
"It's going to be good to get a chance to look at McClain and see how he adjusts to a new system and see how he fits in," Price notes. "It's good that he has a chance to go through off-season conditioning and practice. He's definitely a guy that I think will help us some.
McClain talks with Jay Ratliff during a bowl practice on the Auburn campus.
"It will be good to see the young kid," Price says of Derozan. "He's probably 250 now. He was 248, in fact, the last time I talked to him. That's up from the 229 he was during the season. He's gotten bigger and a lot stronger. He's grown and I think his shoulder is a lot better now. It's going to be interesting to see how he fits in. He's got a lot of talent and we'll see how he fits into our mix at defensive end. I'm looking forward to watching him progress a little bit with a year in the weight room under his belt."
Kyle Derozan should be a big addition to the defensive end position in 2003.
No matter what happens this spring, the position will be bolstered by the addition of talented players this fall who have the chance to be difference makers. Junior college All-American Doug Langenfeld is one of the best athletes in the country and comes in after a successful career at Reedley College in California. Throw in high school standouts Quentin Groves from Greenville, Miss., and Stanley McClover from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and you have more players who are ready to challenge for immediate playing time at the position. Two other signees, Marquies Gunn of Alexander City and Lloyd Blevins from Birmingham, may have to start their careers at prep school or junior college, could join them in the coming years to make up what may be looked back on as one of the best defensive end signee classes in Auburn history.
(Part five will publish on Friday.)