The time for spring and summer talk and speculation is almost at an end. The long, dark tea-time of the soul* of the off season is coming to a close. The 2016 Auburn Football Tigers reported today, and they'll hit the practice field for the first time tomorrow.
There are tons of questions to be asked. Some of them are just general curiosities. There are also, of course, some that are bone-chilling and others that are just smoldering. There are always questions with each new season. Major contributors leave. New players step up.
Some times, though, you go in to a season just knowing there's one group that's going to be just fine. There's no chance this one is going to let you down.***
Typically, when it comes to Auburn football, I would say the running back position is almost always a lock, here. Auburn is Running Back U, after all. The Tigers have had a 1,000 yard rusher every season under Gus Malzahn. That's reason for confidence, right?
Sure, but there are questions there given the depth and the fact Jovon Robinson missed a lot of time last season with an undisclosed injury and Kerryon Johnson had off-season shoulder surgery. So, no, I'm not most confident in the running backs.
The position group that gives me the most confidence - and, oh, how I've longed to be able to say this for the last decade - is the defensive line.
The major contributors from 2015 are back. Carl Lawson is healthy. There are incoming freshmen who have already made a big splash. Oh, and there's a 5* defensive tackle who hasn't even had a chance to show what he can do, yet.
Let's take a look at the depth chart as it currently stands on the official site:
|52||Antwuan Jackson Jr.||DL||6'2||303||FR|
|62||Jaunta'vius Johnson||DL||6'2||317||RS FR|
|90||Maurice Swain Jr.||DL||6'5||314||SR|
Getting Lawson and Adams to return for their senior seasons was the biggest victory for new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. When they're on their game, they can be two of the best in the nation, and you know they're going to be anxious to prove something in their final season of college football.
On the interior, you have Dontavius Russell who played very well last year as a redshirt freshman, Devaroe Lawrence came on strong late and could be a breakout star in his final campaign, and giant redshirt freshman Jaunta'vius Johnson is going to want to try to make a name for himself, too.
On the edges, Andrew Williams and Raashed Kennion want to take the next step. Of course, they'll have to compete with last year's #1 recruit in the nation in Byron Cowart, too. Cowart will be looking to live up to the hype and potential and show why he was recruited that highly.
Those are just the returning players. Marlon Davidson and Antwuan Jackson Jr made a name for themselves in spring practice as individuals ready to be major contributors right off the bat. Davidson even left the spring as the starter opposite Carl Lawson on the end. Jackson was making moves on the interior. 6'5, 330 lbs giant Derrick Brown hasn't even had a chance to showcase his skills, yet.
That's 12 players who all have a lot of talent, were all very (or at least fairly) highly recruited, and will be fighting hard to contribute. It's 13 if you count Jeff Holland, who is listed as an outside linebacker on the roster, but played a lot of Buck/pass rusher. 14 if you consider JUCO Paul James III, who was the best pass rushing JUCO player last season. There's a reason those two have been looked at more as linebackers... talent is had a plenty on the defensive line, and we need to make sure we can use all of the playmakers available.
Rodney Garner likes to rotate his linemen to keep fresh legs. There have been questions about depth in previous seasons. This season, that's not a problem. There is a lot of talented depth in a position that could very well be the strongest its been since the Tuberville era.
Garner and Steele have a lot of toys to play with. This is the position I'm most confident will perform at a very high level this season. Hopefully they'll be able to dominate the trenches and lead an Auburn defense to levels we haven't seen in a long time.
*Ok, I used that line the other day, put the asterisk in, and then forgot to talk about it. I've used it a lot since I've been writing here, actually, because I always loved it. That line is the title to a Douglas Adams book (the guy who wrote the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) in the Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency "series" (if two books can be called a series), which is now going to be a TV show,** which is awesome.
**Yes, I know BBC did it a few years ago; I still need to watch that.
***Unless Carl Lawson gets hurt, again, in which case I'll be convinced Auburn's DL is cursed and with all of the talent in the world, it'll still struggle.