AUBURN, Ala. — By the time Auburn football’s 2017 season starts, Rodney Garner wants to fill both of his hands with the number of defensive linemen he’s confident that can play at a high level.
The veteran defensive line coach said this week he wants to go into the fall with 10 trustworthy players in his unit. He believes that number is what it takes to thrive in the physical SEC.
“My goal always is to get 10 guys to play at a championship level,” Garner said. “That’s our target number. We’ve got to get a few more guys to elevate their status.”
Garner said he can only count to six right now, during the fourth week of Auburn’s spring practice. He returns a pair of starters in junior defensive tackle Dontavius Russell and sophomore defensive end Marlon Davidson.
The other trustworthy linemen at this point are sophomore tackle Derrick Brown, junior edge rusher Jeff Holland, junior tackle Andrew Williams and junior defensive end Paul James III.
“Those are a pool of guys that have played some significant snaps that are right there in the upper echelon,” Garner said.
Garner said he has two other Tiger defensive linemen who are on the verge of joining that “upper echelon” with the likes of Russell, Davidson and Holland. Junior end-turned-tackle Byron Cowart and redshirt freshman defensive end Nick Coe — a player Garner said had “a lot of promise” — are the likeliest candidates.
“We’ve got about two guys that are really, really getting close,” Garner said. “But I need two more guys. That’s the challenge that we’ve got to get done these next several practices.”
Those eight could fill out an early two-deep along the defensive line. Coe is the only player with significant reps behind Davidson at defensive end. Holland and James are Bucks. Russell and Brown are the favorites at tackle, with Cowart and Williams filling in behind them.
But a two-deep isn’t enough for Garner.
Garner points to the success Auburn had on the defensive front in 2013, his first season back with the program. The Tigers had eight different starting lineups in 14 games along the defensive line. The number of total snaps went down for stars such as Dee Ford, but the production increased.
Last year, Garner said Auburn’s defensive line met the magic number, and it even reached the teens in some games. But with future NFL draft picks Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gone — along with key depth pieces Devaroe Lawrence and Maurice Swain Jr. — the race to 10 is even more important this spring.
“My philosophy on it is that once a big man runs out of gas, it’s hard to refuel him,” Garner said. “You’re not going to refuel him in game. It’s like a plane in flight. If that plane runs out of gas over the Atlantic Ocean, it’s over. It’s going down. So you better keep the fuel up. That’s my philosophy around playing them. We want them to play the fourth quarter like the first quarter.”