By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Before Kevin Steele answered his first question, Auburn's defensive coordinator asked one.
"Everybody says, `How are you going to replace Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams?'" Steele said. "If we're just figuring that out right now, and that wasn't figured out two or three years ago in recruiting and last year in coaching. And we just waited till now to answer that question, we've got problems."
While Lawson and Adams are turning heads at the NFL Combine and preparing for Auburn's Pro Day on Friday, Steele and associate head coach/defensive line coach Rodney Garner are busily training the Tigers' next elite defensive linemen.
"You're always thinking two, three, four years ahead," Steele said. "You know the day you get them that some of them are going to be gone in three years, some of them are going to be gone in four, some of them are going to be gone in five, but they're all going to be gone. So you better replace them and you better have somebody ready."
In 2016, Auburn ranked No. 7 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 17.1 points per game, the Tigers' best defensive showing in a decade.
"We've got a lot of guys back who were part of the '16 team that accomplished some improvement in major areas," Steele said. "We got instilled in a group of guys in that '16 team, relentless effort, pursuit to the ball, be good tacklers and play with physicality. They played very good as a unit."
Even though there is carryover from Auburn's returning defensive players and coaches, Steele said the Tigers are starting from scratch this spring.
"We have started all over," Steele said. "Started at ground zero, as if we had never coached together, we had never coached these guys."
Steele listed two players from each defensive area who are providing leadership: Dontavius Russell and Jeff Holland on the line, Tre' Williams and Darrell Williams at linebacker, and Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts in the secondary.
"A lot of leadership taking place without us having to press that," Steele said.
Still, someone will need to fill the void created by the departure of Adams and Lawson. Derrick Brown, who played as a true freshman last season at 6-5, 317 pounds, figures to play a larger role.
"It's a key piece, because he's a very talented young man," Steele said. "He's very athletic. He's smart. He's got a tremendous amount of pride and work ethic. When you can command double teams inside, it's talked about often, but there are rare people who can do that every day."
Byron Cowart, who has played in 23 games in his first two seasons at defensive end, is working at tackle this spring. It's all part of Steele's plan to create competition at every position.
His message to Auburn's defensive players?
"Do your job. We're going to give you a task. Do your job. Master your task. Produce," Steele said. "We've all got a job to do. Production is part of that."
Auburn will practice 10 more times this spring before the A-Day game on April 8 at 1 p.m., with Steele seeking improvement from each player in all areas.
"Everything," he said. "That's what we told every one of them. We have not arrived. None of us."
-- Jeff Shearer (@jeff_shearer) March 3, 2017
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer