Thursday, March 20, 2014

The 4 Horseman of the Sackocalypse

The Auburn Realist

You can find links to all of my Auburn Realist Blog posts here.

The burning question all Auburn fans have been asking: When will Auburn return to the defense to the form we were so used to seeing from Tuberville? Will they ever do it?

What do you think? And what pieces, if any, do you think Auburn has that resembles those great teams? No, seriously, let's hear it!

I believe the biggest piece of the puzzle is already in place. And I believe it will make waves. Big ones.

The class that entered Auburn University in 2013 was a very special one, for many reasons. I think the first thing that set it apart was the fact that Coach Malzahn, despite the 3-8 season preceding his entrance and his late hire date, was able to maintain a great recruiting class. Delving a little deeper, we notice that the jewels of his class were on the D-line.

Retrospect is 20/20 and we all saw the development of Marshall when many of us assumed that Jeremy Johnson was going to start as a freshman. But, it was hard to deny what it meant to keep Carl Lawson and sign Montravious Adams and Elijah Daniel.

But, I know I wondered about the development of these young men among a fairly deep defensive line rotation that featured a future first round pick in Dee Ford. But, as injuries do, it sidelined several players (some for the whole year) that led to the push for Lawson and Adams to see the field as early as the opener against Washington State. Even in this first game, each of these two men made an instant impact and showed what they would be capable of, though they, at times, showed their youth in disciplined play. As the year went on, each of the three would record tackles for loss, sacks, and even turnovers.

I know I have waited for the recruiting prophesies to work out in Auburn's favor, as they have for South Carolina and other places. While Auburn has had defensive players with great seasons, they tend to be late in their career and the teamplay surrounding them has been questionable. Since Tommy Tuberville left the Plains, the Auburn defense has struggled to keep its head above water, at best. In most circumstances, it has been the liability of the team, even in 2010 and 2013....a far cry from the string of Top 10 defenses that was the calling card of the Tuberville era.

While I still don't think the play of the linebackers and secondary will be to that level (though I do believe each will be dramatically improved), I firmly believe that we will see a defensive line as though we have not seen in our generation....from any NCAA team.

That's a tall order, I know. There have been some dominate front 4s in the last 10 years, including but not limited to the 2009 Crimson Tide front 4 and the 2003 LSU front that featured LaRon Landry, Marcus Spears, and Chad Lavalais...then only a few years later the team of Tyson Jackson, Glenn Dorsey and Drake Nevis.

While these 3 aforementioned players are only sophomores, they are paired with some guys who have all shown flashes of potential and are hungry to produce after waiting in line behind guys like Dee Ford, Corey Lemonoir and others. Of particular note are three guys: Jeff Whitaker, Gabe Wright, and LaDarius Owens.

Guys like LaDarius Owens have made impacts in the game, but many times as roll players or as guys in the rotation. Jeff Whitaker is a guy who has been on the field early and often in his career and was ready to make an impact from the tackle position until an injury forced him out. Even in 2012, he missed half a season. But, he has been active, even in 2010 , and he has been a contributor. Gabe Wright made his presence known late in 2013, coming through with several tackles for loss. As the year went on, he became better and better. Even after this list are guys like Blackson and Bradley who have played, but not as much as they would like.

So, I know you are saying to yourself "The title says 4 Horseman, not 8."

Yes, I know. We are getting there.

I don't think it's even a question of the talent of the 3 rising sophomores.  At least two of these guys will be starters and all three will be in the rotation. There will only be 4 on the field at any one point, but the combination of depth, experience, hunger, and talent will be a wrecking ball on opposing offenses this year.

It will start this spring as these guys will be pushing themselves and each other to the absolute breaking point. Oh to be a fly on the wall among the D-line workouts! You have a handful of senior guys who haven't quite made it to where they want to be who are being pushed by talented youngsters who have a taste of success and know the expectations of the fan-base and coaches. It is a special concoction that is being brewed down on the Plains.

A-Day will be very interesting for this reason alone. The battle up front will be a great focal point. While the offensive line will be fantastic, it won't have been put together for very long, if at all. In this situation, the defense usually has the upper hand in preparation. I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if there are a LOT of whistles on A-Day for sacks. Even if it becomes a battle of stalemates, I would be happy. I expect a lot from this offensive line....who I expect to be the best in the SEC this year.

I won't pretend to know who will be your starting 4. And, honestly, whoever starts out doesn't really matter. Offensive lines don't rotate and these guys will. And they can do it a lot with the talent and experience they have in the depth at the D-Line.  Regardless of who is out there, there will be well prepared and very hungry. It's been a long time since Auburn fans, a fan base that has great love for great defenses, has been excited about seeing a shut down D on the field. In the past, we have had one or the other...but not both. 2004 was the closest we ever saw, but that offense was a very pro-style offense, much different than we have grown used to.

The LB and DB play may not quite be up to the standards of the DL, but we can at least expect a lot of QB hurries, tackles for loss, and sacks. These guys are fast and strong. Adams and Lawson will have learned to play in space and really utilize the athleticism that we saw at times last year, in combination with a full year of fitness, training, and coaching. These seniors are going to get a season to prove they belong at a historically great defensive school. I even expect Wright to make a push for an NFL pick.

There will be no 1 and 2 Teams. It will be 1 and 1A. And, it will be a very scary thing to watch.