AUBURN - Auburn defensive end Ken Carter knows where defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s complaints about lack of pass rush are aimed.
No, the former defensive tackle doesn’t have an explosive first step on the edge. He’s a block shedder, a gap stuffer, but not much of a pass rusher. And he's not alone.
That hasn’t stopped the senior — or his teammates — from praising the younger, more athletic competition.
Carter sees freshmen defensive ends Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel, and he thinks sky’s the limit. The five-star prospects have all the tools, the most obvious being SEC-ready bodies. Lawson is 258 pounds, Daniel 264.
Both are quick enough to give opposing quarterbacks the shivers.
“ Those guys are great,” said Carter, for now the Tigers’ starting defensive end opposite senior and returning sack leader Dee Ford. “They’ve got a great skill. They’ve got potential to be probably some of the best players to come through Auburn.”
No one is ready to compare either freshman to Takeo Spikes, even if Lawson wears his No. 55. Auburn doesn’t expect its trio of highly-touted freshmen defensive linemen — tackle Montravius Adams included — to play like Nick Fairley this fall.
But, at minimum, the three should add depth to a defensive line severely lacking it the past two seasons. And, perhaps, Lawson and Daniel could be the answer to Auburn’s pass-rush deficiency.
After defensive end Corey Lemonier skipped his senior season and was drafted in the third round by the San Francisco 49ers in April, somebody has to step up.
“ They look good out there, I’ll tell you that,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said after Auburn’s first fall practice Friday. “It’s just a matter of how quick they can catch on. It’s really hard to evaluate offensive and defensive linemen until they get in pads.”
Auburn will put on shells — helmet and shoulder pads — for the first time Sunday evening. Malzahn said it will be the first day the team practices full, 11-on-11 drills.
On Tuesday, players will be in full pads. That’s when the best evaluations can be made.
So far, there have mostly been individual drills. Ford said he’s been impressed. The most important thing for a pass rusher is “violent hands,” he said. Lawson, Daniel and Adams have that down, though Ford admitted they’re “a little wild” and need to polish their technique.
“ They're making their transitions from high school to college,” Ford said. “It's tough, but they're doing a great job. I don't know how they are psychologically. I'm not in their heads, but it seems to me that they're doing a great job being consistent. But it's only the second day, so we'll see.”
Perhaps the physical part of the game won’t be the biggest challenge.
Like any young player, Lawson, Daniel and Adams will have to learn their schemes. More importantly, they’ll have to adjust to the speed SEC football.
Senior defensive end Nosa Eguae said he sat with Lawson for 30 minutes going over the playbook before fall camp opened.
“ Those guys are talented,” said Eguae, who admitted pass rushing hasn’t been his strength in the past. “Those guys came in with college bodies. We're all looking forward to it. They're all eager to learn.
“ Some of us have played in more SEC games than others, but we know we all have to feed off each other and hold each other accountable.”
Raw potential only goes so far. Ultimately, whether Lawson, Daniel and Adams can contribute immediately this fall — and how much those contributions will be — depends on the entire package coming together.
Malzahn has seen it go both ways. Only time will tell which will happen with Auburn’s freshman trio.
“ My experience is, there’s a lot of guys talented enough to play early,” Malzahn said. “But there’s a lot of them that the moment is too big, and it takes them a little bit to get used to the speed of the game and the mental grind and everything that goes with that. But that’s what we’re looking for. We’re trying to figure out the ones who can handle it, and we’ll try to put them in as many of these situations as we can so we can figure that out sooner rather than later.”