AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football has a Carl Lawson-sized hole on its defensive line for 2017. The race between Jeff Holland and Paul James III to replace him as the Tigers’ top buck is off to a strong start.
“Everybody wants the starting job,” sophomore defensive end Marlon Davidson said. “I’m proud of them for actually going along with everything that’s going on with [defensive line coach Rodney Garner] and taking it in. Nobody’s fighting. Nobody’s mad about playing time or reps or nothing like that. It’s just great that they’re getting along and working together.”
Auburn hopes that cooperation inside the competition turns into production. The Tigers appeared out of sync defensively in 2014 and 2015, when Lawson was out with injury. In 2016, his first healthy season since his freshman campaign, he had 9 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss and 24 quarterback hurries.
Holland, a junior, is the favorite to replace Lawson. He served as a “fifth starter” of sorts last season, backing up Lawson at buck and playing in the third-down rabbits package to rush the passer.
“Jeff has progressed ever since he’s gotten here, and there’s never been a situation of something he can’t do it,” junior defensive tackle Dontavius Russell said. “It was just Carl was here. So now it’s his turn, and he’s ready to step in and do what he needs to do to help the team.”
Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele says there isn’t a set starting lineup this early in fall camp. But it’s apparent the Tigers are using the threat of James and others to push Holland in practices.
“We’re going to create stress and we’re going to create some competitiveness so they have to react to it,” Steele said. “So we’re going to challenge people, move guys around, move guys in front of people based on the day before’s practice. Not what you did last year, not what you did in the spring — what you did the day before and if you’re playing to the expectations.
“Jeff has answered that to this point, but it’s going to make a better player because we’re going to create some competitiveness here. That will help us depth-wise.”
Holland has been a pure pass rusher since he arrived at Auburn. But since the buck position is constantly on the field — not just obvious passing situations — the Tigers need Holland to step up in run stopping, much like Lawson did later in his career.
Forcing Holland to go 1-on-1 with senior right tackle Braden Smith, one of the highest-rated run blockers in the SEC, has helped.
“Jeff wasn’t as strong on run block last year,” Davidson said. “He was more of a pass rusher, but now Jeff is physical on the run. He takes on Braden everyday. He’s got consistently better every day. His pass rush is always going to be his pass rush. He’ll always be great off the edge. I’m looking for him to have a lot of success.”
Behind Holland, Auburn continues to experiment with different players at buck, and newcomers could get opportunities there this fall. Linebacker Tre Threat worked there in the spring. Markaviest Bryant, a true freshman, is the only player listed as a buck on Auburn’s fall roster.
But James is the biggest competition Holland has for the starting job. The former JUCO transfer impressed in fall camp last year but suffered a season-ending knee injury prior to a Week 4 matchup against LSU.
James entered fall camp in 2017 on a high note — he won the Tigers’ A-Day defensive MVP award with 3 tackles for loss in the annual spring game.
“He’s got his juice back,” Davidson said with a smile. “Paul is jumping around high and having fun. That’s what it’s all about on our defensive line.”
Steele mentioned James alongside Nick Coe and Andrew Williams as defensive linemen who need to be the “next man up” on the defensive line. Auburn wants a double-digit rotation up front in 2017, and Steele himself says he isn’t sure “if starters are relevant anymore.” No matter who wins the job, both should contribute this fall.
Davidson said he doesn’t see a difference in the styles of Holland and James, and he knows both will be valuable to Auburn’s reloading pass rush.
“They are the same guy,” Davidson said. “Same guy. We need both to come every day to fight. Every day.”