The Starters: DEs Antoine Carter (6’4″, 256, Sr.) at “quick” and Michael Goggans (6’3″, 261, Sr.) at “power”; DTs Mike Blanc (6’4″, 297, Sr.), Zach Clayton (6’3″, 296, Sr.) and/or Nick Fairley (6’5″, 298, Jr.)
The Backups: DEs Nosa Eguae (6’2″, 258, rFr.), Corey Lemonier (6’4″, 227, Fr.), Craig Sanders (6’4″, 248, Fr.); DT Kenneth Carter (6’5″, 281, Fr.)
The Wildcard: DT Jeffrey Whitaker (6’3″, 308, Fr.)
The Outside Possibilities: DEs Dee Ford (6’4″, 240, So.), Joel Bonomolo (6’3″, 245, Jr.); DTs Derrick Lykes (6’2″, 286, So.), Jamar Travis (6’0″, 288, So.)
Everyone who follows college football, just about, has some rough idea of the importance of offensive line experience. And everyone who follows Auburn football has a pretty clear idea of how much experience (i.e., oodles) the 2010 Tiger offensive line has. But looking over the above depth chart … we could just about say the same for the defensive line, couldn’t we?
Start with Carter: despite the injury issues that hampered him throughout 2008 campaign and kept him on the sidelines to start 2009, he’s still already appeared in 33 games for Auburn and collected more than 20 sacks-plus-TFLs in his three-year career. Goggans has likewise seen action in every Auburn game since his redshirt year in 2006, starting 18 games since making the first team as a sophomore. Blanc, another ’06 redshirt, moved into the rotation full-time as a sophomore in 2008 and has started 17 games the last two years. Clayton, yet another redshirt out of the 2006 class, has appeared in 27 games despite missing nearly half of last year through injury; don’t forget that his 7.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks in 2008 are the best single season of any defensive lineman on the Auburn roster. Even the young pup of the group, Fairley, is in his fourth year of collegiate football after redshirting at Copiah-Lincoln and saw action in all 13 games last season.
Five players, 18 collective years of college experience, nearly 150 combined appearances on the Plains. No, it’s not quite the Big Four offensive linemen’s 278 combined starts or whatever, but it’s impressive. Experience is not going to be a problem.
Well, not if everyone stays healthy. Because as seasoned as the first-string (and whichever DT becomes the first backup) may be, that’s exactly how un-seasoned the second string is. If we take Tracy Rocker and Gene Chizik at their word–the word that would seem to have relegated Dee Ford and Derrick Lykes to the third team, behind the true freshmen at their respective positions–then not one member on the second team will have ever played so much as a down at Auburn. In terms of experience, it’s not so much a step down as a flying Wile E. Coyote-style leap off a cliff.
Which is why it’s so hard (for your humble Auburn Blogger, at least) to pin down expectations for this unit. There’s two distinct, separate, polar-opposite way of approaching the line’s grand canyon of experience, which I present for argument’s sake:
Auburn has the best of both worlds here. I’m not sure anyone would argue that from a raw talent standpoint, the newcomers (and sorta-second year player Fairley) have the veterans beat. For Lemonier and Whitaker to impress the way they have speaks volumes, and no one has anything negative to say yet about Sanders and Carter. Don’t forget that Eguae, though, was last year’s immediate-impact guy until he hurt himself and would be getting mentioned in the same breath if he was a true frosh instead of a redshirt. All of these guys have the chops to play and make plays when they do.
But they won’t have to, not right away, because of all the experience and potential in front of them. Maybe the presence of Goggans isn’t going to set anyone’s pulse racing after his disappointing season a year ago (all of 2.5 TFLs and one sack, if you’ll recall), but even he has owned up to his struggles and is allegedly hungrier–and better–than he was in ’09. And as for the rest of the line: Carter has always been a force when healthy and looked better than ever in his Defensive MVP performance at A-Day; Clayton, similarly, was one of Auburn’s best defenders in 2008 and by all accounts is back to full health*, turning Rocker’s head in the process; Blanc had his issues against the run but was still Auburn’s most disruptive interior lineman a year ago (6.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks), and should be both more balanced and even more disruptive with a year of Rocker’s tutelage; and Fairley, to put it simply, has gobs more pure talent than any other member of the first five.
So, Auburn gets to have its defensive line cake and eat it too, leaning heavily on an entire cadre of grizzled, steady, been-through-the-wars veterans while keeping the young guns hungry and deploying them strategically for maximum impact. The freshmen keep the seniors fresh and sharp, the seniors keep the freshmen motivated and pressure-free. Things are going to go great.
Auburn has the worst of both worlds here. OK, so Auburn’s got a ton of experience. How much is that really worth?
Because last year, it wasn’t worth a whole heck of a lot, frankly. Despite facing more offensive plays than just about anyone and boasting the SEC’s leading TFL and sack artist, Auburn still finished middle-of-the-pack in the SEC in both sacks and TFLs; ninth in average yard-per-carry allowed and dead last in rushing touchdowns allowed; and, in a correlated indictment of the line to raise its play when it mattered, dead last in red zone touchdown percentage allowed.
Certainly, a lot of that was the toxic combination of the absence of a second string combined with the quick-step tempo of Malzahn’s offense. But a lot of it was just sub-standard play from two fourth-year players in Goggans and Blanc, and even third-year man Carter at times. Between those three guys, Antonio Coleman, and Jake Ricks, last year’s front was almost as veteran as this year’s and had Coleman on the very top of his game … and they still couldn’t get the job done with any kind of consistency. One year shouldn’t make that big a difference for guys who have been around the block this many times already, should it?
And as for the freshmen, they’re awesome, but they’re freshmen, and playing a position that–like their counterparts in the trenches on the other side of the ball–doesn’t lend itself to productive early playing time. It’d be swell if guys like Eguae and Sanders and Whitaker had shown up a year earlier, but the cold hard fact is that we need legitimate options at tackle and power end and we need them now, and now isn’t when the freshmen are going to be ready. The seniors aren’t going to be good enough, and the freshmen aren’t going to be good enough yet. Things are going to be disappointing.
So … which side is closer to the truth? Like virtually all black-or-white questions, I think the answer is somewhere in the gray middle. On the glass-half-full side, there’s no reason not to expect some improvement out of the veterans, and quite possibly a lot more than “some.” There’s no telling how good Carter and Clayton could be if they stay 100 percent, Carter in particular–he looks primed to replace most-if-not-all of Coleman’s production. Blanc should get a bigger boost than anyone out of having to handle fewer snaps. Goggans knows after that last year that Rocker will bench his rear end if he doesn’t produce. And Fairley … I mean, if the light comes on a la Pat Sims and he plays to his potential, he’ll be the most dominating player on the unit.
I also wouldn’t discount the freshmen, Whitaker in particular. His job is simple: plug the hole. Eat space. Stop the push. Ricks was somewhere between adequate and decent at that job last season, but he didn’t have anything like Whitaker’s combination of strength and size; if Rocker can get his technique polished up to trust-worthy levels, pairing a pure noseguard like Whitaker with a penetrator like Blanc or Fairley could be devastating. And elsewhere, Lemonier’s drawn too much praise not to have some success as a pass-rush specialist, and Eguae and Sanders each have both the build and motor (not to mention enough time on campus) to fill in more-than-ably at power end. The kids are all right.
But are they enough to give Auburn a standout defensive line? That, I’m less sure about. I like each of them in their projected limited, do-this-one-job-for-just-a-few-plays role, but they are just freshmen, and freshmen on the defensive line at that; assigning them any heavier duty than “part of the rotation” will be asking for the same kind of gashing we saw last season. But Rocker may have no choice–as excited as we might be about Carter and Clayton, we should believe either one will make it through the season unscathed by injury when they do, and not a moment before. And I’d like to be more optimistic about Blanc and Goggans–and I am, a little bit, about Blanc, who should continue at the least to be a real threat on passing downs–but I think for the most part, they are who they are by this stage of their careers. Put it all together, and I think you’re looking at a line that just enough of that talent/experience mix to not be a weakness, but not enough talent in the truly experienced guys or experience in the truly talented guys to be a strength.
The one guy who could singlehandedly change that equation? Again, it’s Fairley. If he puts a choke-hold on a starting position and turns the flashes of brilliance we saw last season into a consistent stream of big plays, suddenly there’s enough balance and star power (between him and a healthy Carter) to turn this into the best unit on the defense. Unfortunately, though, after fall camp I can’t bring myself to expect that, since most of the buzz wound up centered on Clayton’s return, Lemonier’s and Whitaker’s arrival, Carter’s ascension, etc. The very early returns even posited Blanc and Clayton as the first-team pairing. (See below–ed.) A Fairley explosion is the thing most worth hoping for when it comes to the d-line. But it’s not something I’m expecting just yet. (UPDATE before I even get the post posted: Fairley and Clayton are your starting tackles. Tough development for Blanc, no doubt, but an encouraging sign for the line overall, as I think you have to like both Fairley’s and Clayton’s upside a lot more. Not sold yet, but it’s a good sign.)
Carter tops double digits in TFLs, collects 8-10 sacks, and wreaks general havoc … but isn’t quite up to the McClover/Groves/Coleman terror end standard. This isn’t a problem on passing downs, as the contributions of Blanc, Lemonier, Fairley, and Clayton (and maybe even Goggans, who Rocker has again talked about sliding to tackle on pass-rush situations) should help boost Auburn into the upper third of SEC teams in sacks.
But there’s still issues against the rush, as at power end Goggans only incrementally improves while Eguae isn’t quite ready for full-time duty, and the tackles continue to occasionally get pushed around. This problem leads Rocker to work Whitaker more and more into the rotation, and by the final third of the season he, Clayton, and a suddenly-terrifying Fairley are taking most of the snaps … and providing the stoutest rush defense of Chizik’s tenure to-date.
It’s enough to make 2010 a decided improvement on 2009 … but not enough to be one of the league’s better lines, not yet.
THE UNIT’S FINAL GRADE ON AN UNNECESSARILY PRECISE FIVE-STAR SCALE