The Starters: DE — Antonio Coleman (6-3, 261, Sr.), Michael Goggans (6-3, 264, Jr.); DT — Mike Blanc (6-4, 288, Jr.), Jake Ricks (6-4, 292, Sr.)
The Backups: DE — Nosa Eguae (6-2, 244, Fr.), Dee Ford (6-4, 214, Fr.), Antoine Carter (6-4, 263, Jr.); DT — Derrick Lykes (6-2, 284, rFr.)
The Wildcards: DT/DE — Zach Clayton (6-3, 281, Jr.), Nick Fairley (6-5, 293, So.)
The Outside Possibilities: DE — Cameron Henderson (6-5, 230, rFr.); DT — Jamar Travis (6-0, 308, Fr.)
I’ll just come right out and say this: top-to-bottom, this is the best unit on the team.
Oh, I know that’s not supposed to be the case when you replace both of last year’s tackles (one of them All-SEC and a first-day draft pick), have true freshmen listed on the second-string at both end positions, and are coming off of a season that was “okey-dokey” at best and usually not even that. (Lookit: 11th in sacks in the SEC, tied for 10th in opposing yards-per-carry.) But I think it’s the case anyway, and here’s your reasons why:
1. Tracy Rocker. The guy’s built up a track record longer than your arm at Arkansas and Ole Miss–you think it was coincidence the Rebels went from Charles Barkley turrible to arguably the best d-line in the SEC when he arrived?–and unlike the old staff, he coaches both ends and tackles. This gives him the chance to make the most out of this group’s …
2. Flexibility. Clayton proved last year he could hold his own at either tackle or end (even if his best skill appears to be a pass-rushing DT); Fairley has already gotten run with the first-team at both positions this fall; and now Goggans has been putting time in at tackle to diversify his skill set. What this means is that Rocker’s not going to get stuck putting three solid performers and one Achilles heel on his line; between having three starter-quality guys that can go inside or outside, Auburn’s going to have their best four guys on the field when it matters. (The guess here is that eventually Ricks makes way for Fairley or Clayton. But however it works out, it should work out well.)
3. Mike Blanc. When I started charting plays last season, I noticed a funny thing: Blanc wouldn’t play much, but when he did, he had a surprising number of impact plays for a defensive tackle. With a full-time starting gig, Rocker’s tutelage, and another year under his belt, I’m expecting a Pat Sims-style breakout year from the big junior.
4. Holy crap, actual depth. Rocker has already said he’ll play “everybody” against La. Tech, meaning (we believe) every single player I’ve got listed under starters/backups/wildcards above (save the mysteriously doghoused and/or injured Carter) will see time. Even if I doubt all nine of those guys (10 if you count Carter) will hold on to a spot in the rotation, that’s enough bodies that Auburn should have a quality second string a few weeks into the season. Gabe McKenzie would not see time at defensive end for this group.
5. Antonio Coleman. It’ll be nice if/when the rest of the line does enough to take at least some of the attention away from Auburn’s best player, but regardless this is Coleman’s senior season, the height of his Auburn powers. If he stays healthy, I don’t think anything’s stopping him from double-digit sacks and another half-dozen tackles for loss or more.
So, yeah, put all that together, and you’re looking at a line of genuine quality, maybe even one better than “quality” if Carter can somehow recapture his 2007 lightning-in-a-bottle. And given the issues in the linebacking corps behind them, they’d better be quality.
(For the record, I think Carter does return at some point, but not to his previous form, unfortunately. As for the other backups, I’d guess one of Eguae or Ford will stick in the rotation, but Lykes may be out of luck with Clayton and Fairley both options at DT I think . Of course, with Rocker tighter-lipped about his players’ progress than any other Auburn assistant, it’s all guesswork until Saturday.)
Blanc comes out of nowhere to contend for All-SEC honors, Coleman does his thing, and the four-headed monster of Ricks, Clayton, Fairley, and Goggans handle their business at the other two spots. Result: the line spends the last part of the year driving, pushing, pulling the Auburn D forward not singlehandedly, exactly (as you’ll see in a few minutes, I think the secondary is a tad underrated), but definitely with the heaviest available hand.
THE UNIT’S FINAL GRADE ON AN UNNECESSARILY PRECISE FIVE-STAR SCALE