AUBURN, Ala. — While the quarterback battle at Auburn will receive a ton of justified attention in 2017, another competition for a starting job could be just as crucial — Buck defensive end, where Carl Lawson starred.
In Auburn’s defense, the Buck position is a pass-rushing specialist. It’s a hybrid defensive end and outside linebacker, often standing up on the edge of the Tigers’ 4-3 front. At times last season, the Buck lined up closer to the middle of the formation and rushed like an inside linebacker.
It’s a versatile position that Lawson made his own. After struggling with injuries for the majority of two whole seasons, Lawson recorded 9 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss and 24 quarterback hurries.
But now Lawson is off to the NFL, and Auburn needs to find his replacement in preseason camp. While rushing the quarterback is a total team effort, the Buck’s job is to lead the defense in that area. Without an effective one, the Tigers suffer.
Take a look at Auburn football in the post-Tommy Tuberville years. Whenever Auburn averages near 2 sacks per game, the Tigers have had their best seasons. When they fall below that range, the records slip.
|YEAR||SACKS PER GAME||SACKS LEADER||RECORD|
|2009||2.15||Antonio Coleman (10.0)||8-5|
|2010||2.50||Nick Fairley (11.5)||14-0|
|2011||1.69||Corey Lemonier (9.5)||8-5|
|2012||1.83||Dee Ford (6.0)||3-9|
|2013||2.29||Dee Ford (10.5)||12-2|
|2014||1.62||Kris Frost (3.5)||8-5|
|2015||1.46||Cassanova McKinzy (5.0)||7-6|
|2016||1.92||Carl Lawson (9.5)||8-5|
In 2009, Auburn bounced back from a losing season with a higher number of sacks. In 2010, Nick Fairley led the way defensively for a national championship team. Then, in 2013, Auburn rebounded again, winning an SEC Championship as Dee Ford became the team’s sack leader.
And while the final records didn’t dramatically improve, Auburn’s stronger pass rush after lackluster 2014 and 2015 seasons coincided with better defensive numbers across the board in 2016 and a Sugar Bowl berth.
Having an effective pass rush — and a key figure to lead it, such as Antonio Coleman, Fairley, Ford and Lawson — is huge for the health of Auburn’s defense and the team as a whole.
That brings Auburn to 2017 and the challenge of replacing Lawson. Auburn’s top returning player in sacks (2.5) is sophomore Marlon Davidson, who will return as the starter opposite the Buck at a more traditional defensive end position.
Davidson will push for better numbers in pass rushing, but a lot of the responsibility will fall on the new Buck. Who will take over that role?
The easiest answer is junior Jeff Holland, who backed up Lawson in 2016. Holland is a natural outside linebacker, and he served as Auburn’s “fifth starter” on the defensive line. Whenever the Tigers moved to their Rabbits package on third downs, Holland lined up opposite Lawson as Davidson moved to the inside.
While he generated a lot of pressure on quarterbacks when he was in the game, Holland recorded just 2 sacks and 3 tackles for loss in 2016. He knows more is expected of him in 2017.
“I just have to come in and be a leader (in 2017),” Holland said after the Sugar Bowl. “From this day on, I have to help my team. Let my team know that they can trust me and they can depend on me.”
But Holland won’t automatically win the starting job at Buck. Defensive line coach Rodney Garner will have an open competition along the defensive line in preseason practices, just like Gus Malzahn wants for his entire team.
One of the most talked-about players in Sugar Bowl practices, redshirt freshman Nick Coe, could be the next man up at Buck. The 6-foot-6 former high school champion wrestler received high praise from the NFL-bound Montravius Adams in December.
“I think Nick Coe’s going to be like a great player,” Adams said. “I don’t really know how to explain all of it, but I feel that Nick Coe will be a special player here at Auburn.”
After a redshirt season to get used to the college game, Coe has a chance to shoot up the depth chart in spring practices. Coaches describe his skill set as impressive but raw.
Another name — one with more experience than Coe — to watch in the preseason is Paul James III.
James was one of the top defensive JUCO recruits in the class of 2016. He broke into the rotation early at Auburn but suffered a season-ending injury after just three games.
James has the ideal size and speed of a Buck defensive end for Auburn. If he can make a full recovery from his knee injury, he could be in for a huge 2017 season.
But that’s not all for Auburn. As Davidson showed last season, true freshmen can get major playing time on Garner’s lines. On National Signing Day, Auburn football picked up its top target at Buck with Markaviest Bryant — who will go by his nickname “Big Cat.”
“Big Cat is a guy that we circled in and recruited for a long time,” Malzahn said. “He’s Montravius Adams’ cousin. He is a pass-rushing machine. He’s an Auburn type kid with a great family and great support system.”
Bryant won’t arrive at Auburn until after spring practices, but the Tigers will let him compete for playing time from Day 1.
The same goes for 4-star linebacker signee Tadarian Moultry, who said on his official visit the Auburn staff saw him as a Lawson replacement.
“I’ll be coming off the edge and getting the quarterback,” Moultry said. “They need somebody to get the quarterback. In certain packages last year they couldn’t do it because they didn’t have the linebacker. Now they have a linebacker that can do it, so I’ll be doing a lot of practicing coming off the edge.”
Auburn isn’t short of options when it comes to replacing Lawson in 2017. But whoever they settle on as the next Buck has to produce in a big way this fall.
Recent history makes that a must for the Tigers.