This morning we started the position previews off with the Defensive Tackles. Now, let's get to the other part of the line: the defensive ends!
If you missed it from this morning, the reason I delayed these so late this season is because it seems like the last two years I've done these, I've had to go back and edit and repost one or two because of a major injury or dismissal. I waited this year, and I'm glad I did. Hopefully, there won't be any major roster changes at this point other than knowing the actual starters at positions like QB.
The Defensive Ends
Key Losses -
Keymiya Harrell, Justin Thomas-Thornton, DaVonte Lambert, Gimel President, Raashed Kennion
Key Returnees -
Carl Lawson, Byron Cowart, Andrew Williams, Jeff Holland*
Newcomers (includes redshirts) -
Nick Coe, Marlon Davidson, Paul James III*
*These are players that will likely spend most of their time at linebacker or as a pass-rush specialist.
Causes For Optimism
Healthy Carl Lawson. That's the first thing that should make people optimistic. Carl Lawson, when healthy, has been one of the most disruptive defensive ends in the nation. In the first quarter against Louisville, he was a beast. In his first game back against Ole Miss, he went toe-to-toe with Laremy Tunsil and gave the first round pick everything he could handle and more.
If that's not enough, there's last year's #1 recruit in Byron Cowart. The light never fully came on for Cowart last season, but he's been completely different since Marlon Davidson arrived and knocked him down the depth chart as an early enrollee in the spring. Now, Cowart may reclaim the other end on the line to start the season.
Davidson himself was a bright light in the spring. He garnered tons of praise. It says a lot about someone that he was earning a nod as the starter at defensive end for a SEC school when he should have been enjoying his final semester of high school.
Paul James III came to Auburn as the #1 ranked JUCO DE/pass rush specialist. From depth charts, he's going to spend most of his time at linebacker. However, I included he and Jeff Holland in this because they're both excellent pass rushers who may be called upon in obvious passing situations to rush from the line.
Nick Coe arrived on campus right at the beginning of Fall Camp, but he's someone I'm absolutely thrilled to see develop. I don't know if he'll see the field this fall or redshirt, but anyone who is listed at 6'6, 255 lbs and was a two-time state champion wrestler is someone Tiger fans should be salivating over. He has the body frame to add weight and play in the interior, too. That should help the line going forward with three defensive tackles graduating this season.
Causes For Concern
The last two seasons have proven that a healthy Carl Lawson is the key to Auburn's defense. We know that because he's been injured and it has seriously hurt the team. He's going to have to have an injury-free year to overcome that "injury prone" label.
There's talent in this group, but we thought there was talent on the defensive line last year. They still struggled to generate a pass rush when Lawson was out. The last few years of Auburn football have shown a team that struggles on defense any time they don't have at least one player with 10+ sacks. Carl Lawson can absolutely reach that number, but if he gets hurt, then all bets are off on whether the others are ready to step up in his place.
If Carl Lawson stays healthy, then this could be one of the most dominant lines in the nation. All of the players on it were essentially 4* or 5* recruits. There is so much potential, here.
There is so much talent across it that I can see us looking back at the individual statistics and thinking "huh, no one had a GREAT year," while also looking at the line as a whole and thinking "wow, look at those numbers." Focusing double-teams on Lawson can free the other ends, the tackles, or the linebackers. Cassanova McKinzy's pass rushing improved dramatically last year when Lawson came back because of how disruptive he is. The same could happen this year with any number of players.
As long as everyone stays healthy, I think this will be the best defensive line we've seen on the Plains since at least the Tuberville days. It has the potential to be the best since Tracy Rocker manned the trenches at Jordan-Hare.
Unfortunately, that's all it is right now: just potential. Without seeing a full season from a healthy Carl Lawson and without others stepping up and living up to their talent, it's all just guess-work based on flashes of brilliance and recruiting rankings. Time will tell the real story, but until then I'm going with confidence that this will be the strength of the 2016 team.