Auburn trying to plug middle of defensive line
Auburn's sophomore defensive tackles hardly amassed an abundance of statistics and experience playing behind the stalwarts of an otherwise nondescript defense.
But Jeffrey Whitaker and Kenneth Carter have played in college football games, which puts them at a decided advantage over the guys backing them up.
''Those salty old veterans that we have who have played half a year?'' Tigers coach Gene Chizik said, tongue in cheek. ''It matters and they are the veterans of the bunch, I guess. Here's the thing: There's no substitution for the experience they got. Regardless of how many plays they did or did not play, they played last year and they pretty much played the whole year.
''So just understanding the length of the season, the physicality of the game, having to spell some of our guys from last year definitely helped them. I think also from a confidence level as well.''
The other contenders for playing time in the middle of the defensive line include three freshmen - one of them a newly converted linebacker - and a junior who has played so little he doesn't even have a bio listed in Auburn's media guide.
It's a tough predicament for a Southeastern Conference defense, which must contend with running backs like South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore and Alabama's Trent Richardson. The Tigers proved during last season's national championship run that if an SEC defense does one thing really well, it had better be stopping the run
They were ninth nationally against the run, 99 spots better than Auburn ranked in pass defense.
That success was largely because of tackles Nick Fairley and Zach Clayton, both of whom have moved on to the NFL. Fairley was a fierce pass rusher and the 13th overall pick by the Detroit Lions while Clayton, a coaches' favorite, went to the Tennessee Titans in the seventh round. Key backup Mike Blanc is also gone.
Whitaker and Carter seem virtual locks to start for the Tigers against Utah State on Sept. 3, even though they have a combined 13 tackles. Behind those ''salty veterans'' are freshmen Angelo Blackson, Gabe Wright and DeVaunte Sigler, who was a high school linebacker, and junior Jamar Travis.
''Some young guys are going to get in the game for the first time,'' first-year defensive line coach Mike Pelton said, ''and it's going to be quite interesting to see what happens.''
The 6-foot-3, 312-pound Wright inherits Fairley's No. 90 and a bit of his swagger. He sported a ''Nick Who?'' baseball cap when he announced his college choice on national signing day, and Chizik said Wright was a key target of the coaching staff since their arrival three years ago.
''I'm really excited about the season, but I'm really excited about the things that we did during camp,'' Wright said. ''I don't want to say (we) survived, but we improved so much. Coach Pelton says it all the time, me, Blackson, all the guys, we're a thousand times away from where we started at.''
The pecking order of the youngsters is not clear, but Pelton said he wants to play as many as he can in the first two games, both scheduled for the heat of the day. Next up are Vick Ballard and Mississippi State, the SEC's No. 2 rushing team last season.
''Those guys are playing their first games in college, and they don't really have any idea what it's going to be like,'' Pelton said. ''You've got to be prepared for some mistakes, just because they haven't done it. As long as they bring the effort and they do what we ask them to do, I think they'll be fine. I think it's going to be a learning process during the season for them.''