July 7, 2013
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN – In 1988, Tracy Rocker made 100 tackles en route to winning the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top interior lineman and the Lombardi Award as the nation’s top defensive lineman or linebacker. In 2010, Nick Fairley broke an Auburn record with 24 tackles for loss and had 11.5 sacks in winning the Lombardi Award.
They are the gold standard for Auburn defensive tackles.
Last season, all of Auburn’s defensive tackles combined for 59 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 2 1/2 sacks. Those woeful numbers were part of a defensive performance that broke Auburn records for futility.
Much has changed since the end of that season. Gus Malzahn has taken over as head coach. Ellis Johnson runs the defense and Rodney Garner coaches the defensive line.
And the defensive tackles that struggled so mightily last season have new energy and new confidence.
Garner thought enough of their performance in spring practice that he moved senior Kenneth Carter outside to defensive end. Senior Jeff Whitaker and juniors Gabe Wright and Angelo Blackson were highly recruited prospects. So was junior college transfer Ben Bradley. Redshirt freshman Tyler Nero and redshirt junior JaBrian Niles are waiting in the wings. And then there is incoming 5-star Montravius Adams.
Wright, who was in on 19 tackles last season, says there will be no excuses when the Tigers open their season on Aug. 31 against Washington State at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“I put blame on myself,” Wright said. “I’m not a statistics guy, but I feel like I did little to none to help my team. I think that’s what a lot of guys feel like. I feel like we are going to step up to the plate. It’s time to produce. Guys were signed to do that., b
“I like to think I hold myself to a high standard. We literally did little to nothing in terms of what we know we can do. If you look at drills, we are the most athletic d-line I have seen.”
Blackson, the leader last season among defensive tackles with 27 tackles, says it’s personal for him.
“I’m not a loser,” Blackson said. “I didn’t come here to lose. I understand it happens. You have to be a man about it, but it’s not acceptable.”
Against the pass and the run, as last season spiraled downward Auburn’s interior defensive front made fewer plays with each passing week. Whitaker, after earning rave reviews in spring practice, was in on just 12 tackles.
“It’s tough, but it’s a new day for us,” Whitaker said. “That’s something we try to forget about the best way we can. You remember the embarrassment, but at the end of the day, it’s time to move on. You can’t harp on it.”
At the end of spring practice, Whitaker and Bradley were the starting contenders at nose tackle. Wright and Blackson were the contenders at the 3-technique.
Garner, returning to his alma mater after 14 seasons at Georgia, got the attention of his players early in spring practice. His toughness was welcomed.
“He’s an outstanding guy,” Whitaker said. “He told us he was going to coach us hard-nosed. He’s a man of his word.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: