Sept. 24, 2013
Justin DeLaine (52) and Ben Bradley (50) pressure Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - As preseason camp began in early August, three 5-star freshman defensive linemen were just learning what to do. Junior LaDarius Owens was a linebacker. Junior college transfer Ben Bradley, junior Justin DeLaine and senior Craig Sanders were low on the depth chart.
After four games, much has changed.
Bradley is a starting defensive tackle. Powerful freshman Montravius Adams is pushing hard to be a starter. Freshman Elijah Daniel has emerged as a versatile force, playing inside and out. Freshman Carl Lawson has played in every game at defensive end. Owens and Sanders have been starters at defensive end.
The biggest surprise of all, according to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, might be Delaine.
A fourth-year junior, Delaine had played sparingly before getting his chance against Arkansas State in the second game of the season. He made the best of it, getting the attention of defensive line coach Rodney Garner.
"He made some real good plays," Johnson said. "Rodney felt like he was coming into a situation where he was one of our best pass rushers. He's improved steadily. He's got some things to do better, obviously, but we're really pleased with some of the things he's done in pass situations."
The freshmen, Johnson says, have made steady progress.
"They are doing well," Johnson said. "Montravius, right now, is neck and neck with our starters. He still has to learn about what to do. A few assignment things are keeping him behind. Physically, he's playing well. Elijah is playing on passing downs a good bit. He might be as good a one-on-one pass rusher as we have. He has a great first step, good power. We can use him inside or outside. Carl has been good. They just continue to progress."
They have all joined a crowded defensive line rotation that Johnson credits with contributing significantly to the Tigers' strength in the fourth quarter. Thirteen defensive linemen have made tackles for the Tigers.
Adams made a major impact in a season-opening 31-24 victory over Washington State, and his role has steadily increased. There was a time in camp when he wondered if he would ready to play at all.
"I thought about it every night when I would be in the dorm," Adams said. "I talked to my coaches back at home. Back in high school, I knew where everybody was supposed to be. I knew all the plays. I was captain of the defense. Then I came here and the plays kind of shocked me. They were kind of hard for me to learn. I know I'm a person that needs repetition. I just had to keep drilling it and keep seeing it and keep doing it over and over."
Sanders, who missed Auburn's 35-21 loss to LSU with an ankle injury, had established himself as a reliable contributor at defensive end. Owens, who moved to end after the start of camp, has also been effective. But the biggest surprise of all might be Delaine.
"We've gotten some guys back and continue to progress," Johnson said. "... It's getting to the point where there is a lot of competition.
Owens leads the defensive linemen in tackles with 15, including 2.5 for losses, a sack and three quarterback hurries. Adams has eight tackles with a sack and five quarterback hurries. Bradley has seven tackles with two tackles for loss, a sack and four quarterback hurries. Junior Gabe Wright has seven tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries.
Senior Dee Ford, in two games, has seven tackles, a tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries. Sanders has six tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Delaine has five tackles, a tackle for loss and quarterback hurry. Junior tackle Angelo Blackson has five tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and three quarterback hurries. Senior end Nosa Eguae has four tackles and three quarterback hurries.
Lawson has four tackles, one tackle for loss and one quarterback hurry. Daniel has three tackles, one tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries. Senior Kenneth Carter, who has played end and tackle, has two tackles, one tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries.
Senior tackle Jeff Whitaker, a starter at the end of spring practice, has not played because of a leg injury.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: