AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football’s defensive line doubled its 2015 sacks and tackles for loss totals in 2016. The top 2 performers in those categories, Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, are headed to the NFL.
Just replacing the production of Lawson and Adams would be a big enough task for the Tigers in 2017. But the defensive linemen who played with the dynamic duo last fall are looking past that. They see an even higher ceiling this season.
“I feel like we’ve got an even better chance to be better than we were last year,” sophomore defensive tackle Derrick Brown said. “That’s all you could ask for.”
Together, Lawson and Adams combined for 51 percent of the Auburn defensive line’s tackles for loss, 59 percent of its sacks, and 62 percent of its quarterback hurries in 2016.
But Auburn’s defensive line is confident in its ability to replace Lawson and Adams because of its depth.
Junior tackle Dontavius Russell and sophomore end Marlon Davidson are returning starters. Brown, a former 5-star recruit, is the favorite to replace Adams. Jeff Holland was a “fifth starter” because of his work in Lawson’s Buck position last fall.
Junior tackles Andrew Williams and Byron Cowart also picked up valuable experience in the rotation last season. Paul James III was in line for a big season before a knee injury, but he reclaimed momentum this spring with an A-Day MVP performance.
James believes Auburn — which struggled mightily in sack production while Lawson was hurt in 2014 and 2015 — is ready to take its edge-rushing game to the next level.
“We really can, because we worked a lot with Carl, and we know what Coach expects from us,” James said. “We step up to that challenge every day.”
Behind those experienced pieces, Auburn has potential-filled redshirt freshman end Nick Coe and sophomore Tre’ Threat at Buck. Antwuan Jackson Jr., a former top-50 recruit, is fresh off a redshirt season. Three more defensive linemen, including the highly touted Markaviest “Big Cat” Bryant, will join the team this summer.
Now the Tigers are ready to prove they have strength in all those numbers.
“You can see we’re missing 2 big players,” Davidson said. “We’ve got guys that fit into their spots, and they’re doing a pretty good job at it. As long as they keep building and keep getting better, we’ll have a perfect team next year.”
In order to exceed the production of last season, Auburn’s defensive line needs widespread improvement — not just the emergence of 2 replacements for Lawson and Adams.
That was the mantra for veteran defensive line coach Rodney Garner all spring long.
“All the guys have to step up,” Garner said. “I’m not saying any guys in particular, but somebody has to step up and say, ‘I have to be that guy.’ I’m not saying who that guy is, but we’ve got a talented group. … Everybody’s going to have to up their level of play.
“Last time I checked, there ain’t 2 defensive linemen out there. There’s 4. So there’s 2 other guys (Davidson and Russell) out there who need to step up their level, too. … If they will do that, then I think we’ll have a chance to have a good unit.”