Rodney Garner likes the look of his defensive line
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- Rodney Garner figures he has an easy time selling players on the idea of a revolving door in his defensive line, of playing a lot of players, of sending his guys to the first-round of the NFL Draft.
The Auburn defensive line coach benefitted from that rotation last year, and he's lining up another one for the Tigers in 2014. His problem? Choosing the right ones, finding a pass-rushing defensive end and deciding whether to play or redshirt impressive freshmen such as Dontavius Russell.
No matter what, "the way we want them to play, I think they like the rotation," Garner said.
Garner points to his most recent example of someone benefitting from the rotation, one Dee Ford, a first-round pick in the most recent NFL draft.
"Prior to that, he wasn't even thought of. He wasn't even on anybody's radar," Garner said.
Ford came on and led the Tigers in sacks last year and was picked in the first round by the Kansas City Chiefs. Ford reminds Garner of his four first-round picks that played together for him at Georgia in 2011. Marcus Stroud, Richard Seymour, Jonathan Sullivan and Charles Grant didn't last long on draft day.
"I rotated all of those guys," Garner said. "My thing was selling them on quality reps, not quantity. It keeps them fresher, and at the end of the game, they're stronger. At the same time it's healthier. It preserves them and it gives them more longevity in this collision game."
Garner's interior linemen will include Angelo Blackson, Ben Bradley, Montravius Adams and Jeff Whitaker. The defensive end group will include LaDarius Owens, DeVonte Lambert, Elijah Daniel and Gabe Wright, who could be at that position on first and second downs.
"I wish I had one or two more outside kids in this group that understood what it was to be an SEC pass rusher," Garner said.
But what about linebacker Cassanova McKinzy? He's working as a rush end on obvious passing downs. And what about Russell? To play or not play him?
Either way, Garner says he likes his defensive line.
"I've been pleased with their approach, their attitude and their willingness to be coached. It's encouraging," Garner said.
Russell is a wildcard. McKinzy is a wildcard. And Wright is a wildcard. He's a defensive tackle by trade but may find a home at end.
"I definitely think Gabe can be a very good first, second-down defensive end," Garner said. "I think he can play really good ball. I think he can be an adequate pass rusher, but when you get a third-and-long situation, you really need a guy who has some juice -- a Dee Ford or Carl Lawson -- a true edge guy. He's working hard and I think he's embracing the leadership role. I think he wants to be good."
Garner especially likes his interior linemen. And his newcomers.
He says freshman Raashed Kennion "can run, he can bend, he's long. Unfortunately, he's a kid that you want to redshirt. He has natural stuff." He said junior college transfer DaVonte Lambert is "a very good SEC defensive end. He's strong at the point of attack. He's going to help this football team." He likes fellow junior college transfer Devaroe Lawrence, too.
"I really think they'll help us. I think they're going to give us a lot of value," he said.
Freshman Andrew Williams' role will be "more of a first, second-down kid. He's more of an inside kid."
"We have to decide what we're going to do with the high school kids," Garner added. "That's the struggle I'm having right now. To be honest, the most impressive kid out there is really Russell. He's real good. He can be real good this year, but you don't really need that position. You need the outside position. I'm still struggling, because he's so good."
Russell would play tackle. But Garner is still in need of a pass rusher at end.
"I'm seeing them push each other. That part is there," Garner says. "We need someone to step up and separate himself. That's what I'm looking for. The attitude, the approach to work, the willingness to be coached, I've been pleased with that.
"I really think Cassanova can help us. He has some natural stuff, but the problem is he's trying to train two places. We're just trying to give him the kind of work he needs.
"It's different from being an inside linebacker playing off the ball. He's not rushing the quarterback. He's reading and fitting blocking schemes. So it's a different, leaning how to use his hands, learning how to flip his hips, learning how to get a tackle off the spot. It's a technique. The biggest challenge is we're having is to manage the practice time for him because he still has to improve as an inside linebacker, but he still has to improve as an outside pass rusher."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine