Editor’s note: This is part three in a week-long series looking at five position battles to watch when Auburn opens spring practice in two weeks.
AUBURN, Ala. -- On Tuesday, the Auburn coaches and players looked on as former defensive end Dee Ford showed off his athleticism at the Tigers’ pro day. It was a bittersweet moment for most of them. On one hand, they want to see Ford get drafted in the first round. But it also reminded them of what they’re going to be without next season.
Despite missing the first two games of 2013, Ford still led the team with 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. He had one of the quickest first steps in the SEC and provided a consistent pass rush that more than made up for deficiencies on the back end.
“We don’t max blitz,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said prior to the VIZIO BCS National Championship. “We have to get there with four or five. ... I think our edge guys have been much more productive, and it’s obvious.”
So how do you replace that kind of production? That’s the question Auburn will try to answer this spring. It won’t be easy, but the Tigers do have a good mixture of veterans and rising stars who will vie for playing time.
LaDarius Owens (senior): With Ford gone, Owens becomes the veteran of the group. He has played in 31 games and started 11, including the BCS title game. As a junior, he finished with 30 tackles, including five for a loss, and 2.5 sacks. He might not be the most explosive defensive end on the roster, but he’s the most experienced. And if last year was any indication, the coaches tend to lean toward experience.
Carl Lawson (sophomore): If you’re looking for the star of the group, look no further. Lawson was ranked the nation's No. 2 overall player in the 2013 ESPN 300 coming out of high school and showed flashes of that potential last season as a freshman. His teammates raved about his talent throughout the season, and Johnson said physically Lawson was ahead of where the older guys were at that point in there careers, Ford included. Lawson still has to earn his spot, but with his work ethic and attitude, he could be in for a monster spring.
Elijah Daniel (sophomore): Lawson stole the headlines last year, but he wasn’t the only freshman defensive end to make an impact. Daniel had a strong season in his own right. The former ESPN 300 prospect didn't start any games but still finished among the team leaders with 2.5 sacks. The upcoming spring is critical for the rising sophomore. Even if he doesn’t win a starting job, he can solidify his spot in the rotation before the newcomers arrive this summer.
Gimel President (sophomore): The next-most-experienced end on the roster is President, who played in three games last year and made three tackles. He’ll have an opportunity this spring to crack the two-deep depth chart and make a case for more playing time.
Keymiya Harrell (junior): He missed most of spring practice a year ago due to a knee injury, but Harrell is healthy and hoping to make the most of his opportunity this spring. He played in just one game last season.
Note: Three freshmen defensive ends are expected to arrive this summer, including ESPN 300 recruit Andrew Williams.
Owens and Lawson should be the front-runners to start next season, but there are still plenty of opportunities available for the other players. Johnson likes to rotate his defensive linemen so he can keep his starters fresh for the fourth quarter, and there’s always the potential for injury, too. That’s why this spring is so important for players like President and Harrell, who could be running out of time to make an impression.