HOOVER, Ala. — Auburn’s defensive line has been close, but not close enough.
Too often the Tigers struggled to get to the quarterback in the past, especially in the Gus Malzahn era. There have been moments of brilliance — the Dee Ford-led defensive line of 2013, the lines with a healthy Carl Lawson — but complete seasons have been hard to develop.
That might not be the case this season. Featuring a roster filled with former 4- and 5-star prospects along the defensive line, Lawson and defensive tackle Montravius Adams lead a deep group built from the ground up when Rodney Garner became position coach in 2013.
Still, Auburn finished 13th in the SEC in sack production last season — and did so mostly with Carl Lawson off the field or playing at 60 percent health during the season. Auburn feels a healthy roster, along with depth across the board and more bulk (273 pounds of weigh gained among the bunch) will lead to a stellar season for the defensive line.
“I feel like if we all execute and do what we’re capable of doing, I feel like we’ll be one of the best D-lines in the SEC,” said Adams.
Lawson and Adams weighed opportunities to jump into the NFL in January but opted to return to school. The decision prompted celebration for the defensive coaching staff.
“More is better,” said defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, “and if more is like Carl and Montravius, it’s really better.”
The defensive line will be among the deepest units on the field with returning contributors such as Lawson, Adams, Dontavius Russell, Devaroe Lawrence and Maurice Swain mixing it up with talented newcomers Paul James III and Marlon Davidson, the surprise of the spring at defensive end, and 5-star prospect Derrick Brown.
“I think we’ve got a chance to have one of the best, if not the best, defenses we’ve had at my time at Auburn, which I think is very important,” Malzahn said.
Malzahn made it a point to tell booster clubs throughout Alabama in the offseason his No. 1 goal in 2016 is to field a top-10 defense. Malzahn has been part of only one program with a defense to rank in the top 50 in his 10 previous seasons coaching college football.
The key to that success will be the stalwarts: Lawson and Adams.
“[Lawson is] at his fastest and quickest and strongest he’s ever been,” Malzahn said. “He’s very competent. He’s a wonderful young man. And I really expect him to stay healthy.”