Our look at the player to watch for the upcoming college season continues with the Auburn Tigers, who are looking to improve on a disappointing 7-6 record that included going just 2-6 in the SEC conference. Offensive mind Gus Malzahn enters his fourth season in charge, but it’s his defense led by new coordinator Kevin Steele that has the best draft-eligible prospects to offer:
THE TOP 5
Carl Lawson, rJr, EDGE, #55 – 6ft 2, 257 lbs
There’s no doubt that Lawson is one of the most explosive pass rushers in the country. The difference in the overall performance of Auburn’s defense when Lawson was healthy last season compared to when he wasn’t on the field was certainly evident. That first step is lightning-quick and he has violent hands to knock away offensive linemen’s attempts to lock on to him. There’s plenty questions regarding Lawson as well though, and in fact one of them is not his lack of ideal length. Anyone who thinks that is an issue just needs to watch the fits he gave Laremy Tunsil when Auburn played Ole Miss last season – he can win just fine against big tackles. Where the problem lies is with finishing plays. As impressive as all that speed and early pressure looks, far too often Lawson is in position to make a play in the backfield but fails to bring down the QB or ball carrier, who slips through his grasp fairly easy before going on to make good yardage in the gap he’s left open. He is also a real liability against the run, frequently being targeted and exploited for large gains. The tangible production isn’t there, in part due to the problems already mentioned. Right now a lot of the talk on Lawson is still based around the potential. Durability and availability factor into that and have to be a big worry too. He missed all of 2014 with a torn ACL, then last year he was only able to play in 7 games due to a lingering hip injury. As a result, he’s still only totalled five sacks in college to date. Lots of pressures, but few finished plays. He’s got plenty to prove in 2016, but it starts with being able to stay on the field.
Johnathan Ford, Sr, S, #23 – 5ft 11, 203 lbs
It was near impossible to miss Ford’s impact last season, as the highly-active defender, playing mostly in the box and as a big nickel, piled up 118 tackles. His quick reactions and play-reading, to go with nice closing speed gets him in position to make a lot of plays, and led to a very impressive 6 games in 2015 with double digit tackles. Despite playing plenty in coverage, he could do with making more plays on the ball. He has just 4 pass breakups in 3 seasons so far, albeit with 5 picks as well in fairness. For all the plays he makes taking down ball carriers, it’s difficult to ignore one extremely embarrassing play against LSU running back Leonard Fournette. He completely chickened out of making a proper tackle attempt when right there in position, and was rightly called out for it by the commentators. Sure, Fournette is not fun to try and tackle, but it’s hard not to question Ford’s toughness and commitment looking at that. Indeed, despite the high tackle stats, there are quite a number of other opportunities which he misses poorly when in position. That is certainly a question over his game, but there’s more positives than negatives. Though a bit short at 5ft 11, he’s solidly built and a good athlete. His versatility has seen him line up at both nickel and at safety, and also has been used occasionally as a kick returner on special teams, with a good average of 28.7 yards per return.
Tre Williams, Jr, LB, #30 – 6ft 2, 238 lbs
Despite rotating in and out of the line-up at weak-side linebacker all year with Kris Frost, and only starting the three games officially in 2015, it’s easy to like the junior’s game when he was on the field. Williams looks to have a good all-round game and football IQ with no real glaring deficiencies in his game, doing everything at least well. He’s expected to start at strong-side linebacker this upcoming year. Williams has good measurables, with not just size but a well-built muscular physique and athleticism that sees him move well in space to cover a good range of the field. His vision and ability to quickly diagnose situations indicates a good football brain (worth noting his smarts off the field too with multiple academic recognitions), then brings the brawn as a physical hitter when wrapping up tackles. Though he plays the run very well, and looks comfortable in space as well, his coverage skills still could be proven more, as he is yet to record any passes defended. The skill set does look to be there to be an every-down linebacker, and he should get his chance to show that this year with a bigger role and more snaps with Frost graduating.
T.J. Neal, rSr, LB, #? – 6ft 0, 235 lbs
The Tigers lost a pair of key players at linebacker to graduation, and so Neal will join Williams in the starting line-up this year. Neal is a highly experienced player who has transferred in from Illinois, after the staff there were wanting to shift him from middle linebacker outside to SAM. And even though that staff have since been replaced by Lovie Smith and his new team, Neal’s decision to leave had been made, he stuck to it, and he’ll take his skills to the SEC for his final year of eligibility. What they will be getting is one of the most passionate and intense linebackers currently playing the college game, and will likely bring a bit of vocal leadership to replace some lost veterans. His motor is non-stop and he hits with anger, something he did over 200 times during his last two seasons with the Illini. The recent player that quickly came to mind when watching Neal, was 2016 4th round draft pick of the Giants B.J. Goodson who had a similar presence and motor at a similar size. Goodson is better defending the pass though than Neal, which is where they differ. As good as Neal looks going forward, he is a bit more awkward moving backwards while dropping in to space. If he can improve his abilities in coverage this year and demonstrate a complete game, then it will be a great help to his stock. Right now he looks like a day 3 draft pick though.
Montravius Adams, Sr, DL, #1 – 6ft 3, 296 lbs
Adams joined the Tigers as a highly coveted recruit out of high school, but even though he has been a solid player over his Auburn career, he hasn’t really progressed his game much during his time there. In fact, statistically, his impact declined last year from his 2014 numbers. Adams looks good aesthetically, with his quick reactions off the snap making him appear quite the handful. Ultimately though, he doesn’t actually generate that much pressure, at least not consistently enough. He makes himself tough to handle, but needs to get more wins against both single and double teams. He has a bad tendency to lean too far forward on an initial lunge off the snap, which unsurprisingly throws his balance off too frequently. It’s disappointing to still have to describe his game as raw, as he certainly has a lot of likeable foundation traits for the next level. He just has to find a way to put it all together effectively, and perhaps just needs the right coach to find a way to get the best out of him. Getting back to his 2014 numbers would be a good start – after 8 tackles for loss (TFLs), 3 sacks and 12 quarterback pressures, his numbers in the backfield reduced to 3 TFLs, 2.5 sacks and 6 hurries.
OTHER PROSPECTS TO WATCH
Jovon Robinson, Sr, RB, #29 – 5ft 11, 230 lbs
The junior college transfer joined the Tigers with a lot of hype after a couple very productive years with Georgia Military College. However, he was injured early, missing 5 full games and only carrying the ball 4 times in the first 7 games. He final got his chance with his first (and only) start of the year against Ole Miss, then had a pair of big performances against Texas A&M and Memphis in the bowl win. Robinson has a heavy build, and has pretty impressive footwork at his size. He’s at his best when over-powering would-be tacklers and churning his legs for yards after contact. He is frequently able to bulldoze through tackle attempts and drag defenders for a few extra yards. If he can’t find that initial space though, he can be brought down for little or no gain fairly comfortably, and his lateral movements are often ineffective. His top end speed, initial acceleration and short area explosion are all average at best. He’s good at what he does though. With an injury-free season and more chances to lead the run game and he could rise up draft boards.
Alex Kozan, rSr, C/OG, #63 – 6ft 3, 300 lbs
Earned a full time starting role as a redshirt freshman on the team that made it to the national title game after the 2013 season, and will be a three-year starter at left guard after his upcoming senior season. He did miss the 2014 with a back injury, which hopefully doesn’t bring any long term issues. His size might result in a move further inside to center for the NFL. He’s an average athlete lacking in ideal all-round measurables, but plays aggressive to counter those relative deficiencies.
Tony Stevens, Sr, WR, #8 – 6ft 3, 210 lbs
A big bodied receiver who hasn’t produced much as yet, with just the 14 catches and 1 TD in 2015. While that wasn’t helped by the offensive struggles Auburn had last year, he’s got to find a way to be more impactful to help his cause. On top of the size he has decent speed, and is asked to block a lot, a task which he gets stuck into well. There’s upside with his measurables, and if he can be the one to take over from the departed Ricardo Louis then he can improve his chances.
Jeremy Johnson, Sr, QB, #6 – 6ft 5, 240 lbs
Johnson has every physical measurable you could want in a quarterback. Big, strong, athletic, with a rocket of an arm, and the anticipation was high when he took over last season after flashing his skills in mop-up duty in 2014 and 2013. However, what was revealed, was that Johnson completely lacked the mentality and intangibles to cope with the lead role, unable to handle the pressure. After being benched, he did get back into the line-up due to injuries, but his head coach completely stripped back the playbook to almost nothing but a few quick short out routes to reduce the chances of some of the awful decision making of before. The fragility he’s shown likely means it would take a big turnaround for him to work his way back into an NFL prospect.
Maurice Swain, Sr, DL, #90 – 6ft 5, 295 lbs
Huge man with long arms, who will continue to backup Adams at the nose tackle position. He’s rather lumbering though with no finesse to his game, simply looking to win with his sheer size. That build might get him a look in an NFL camp, but he’s not shown much on the field.
Devaroe Lawrence, Sr, DL, #94 – 6ft 2, 290 lbs
A rotational player along the defensive line, who does a solid job without any real flash. Good situational awareness, disciplined in his assignments and holds up well at the point of attack. His size is borderline, lacking length and doesn’t offer a great deal of upside, but I like his game, and there’s plenty to be said for doing your job well.
Robert Leff, rSr, OT, #70 – 6ft 6, 288 lbs
Leff has the difficult task of taking over the left tackle spot which has been well-manned by Greg Robinson and then Shon Coleman in recent seasons. He’ll be a first year full time starter though, and one of his two starts in 2015 came technically at tight end as an extra blocker in jumbo packages versus Ole Miss. He’s a bit lanky and lightweight, but stronger than he looks, anchoring solidly. He does lack a bit of punch on contact though and very beatable with speed round the edge.
Marcus Davis, Sr, WR, #80 – 5ft 9, 180 lbs 11
The undersized receiver is a longshot for the pros. Though a nice athlete, he hasn’t been able to utilise that much on offense, never averaging over 10 yards per catch over a season, with a poor 6.1 yards per catch in 2015 over his 30 receptions. His best shot might be as a punt returner where he’s done a solid job the past two seasons.
JUNIORS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Tray Matthews, rJr, S, #8 – 6ft 0, 213 lbs
He was expected to be the next star of the Georgia Bulldogs secondary after an encouraging freshman season, but an arrest for illegally trying to double-cash cheques, along with rumours of other off-field issues, led to his dismissal from the program. He stayed in the conference by joining Auburn, and after sitting out 2014 due to transfer rules started seven games last year at strong safety. He looks the part, in particular when moving downfield into the box, and has very good range of coverage when defending the pass. He’s very prone to bad missed tackles and getting out of position, and was responsible for giving up some really poor touchdowns in 2015 due to his errors. There’s talent, but also inconsistency.
Darius James, rJr, OG/OT, #52 – 6ft 5, 311 lbs
The transfer from Texas and former 5-star recruit could finally show what he can do in 2015. After redshirting in 2013, he was just getting into his stride with the Longhorns in 2014, earned his first couple starts, before a knee injury ended his season. He then transferred in to Auburn, sat out 2015 due to transfer rules, and will get his chance at last, likely starting at right tackle this next year for the Tigers. Looking back at his Texas film, he looked a bit exposed on the edge, and looks like he could see his future as a very good guard ultimately. His natural power and strength sees him anchor really well.
Braden Smith, Jr, OG/OT, #71 – 6ft 5, 286 lbs
His listing may look a little light, but Smith has a reputation for impressing in the weight room, and does indeed hold up very well at the point of attack, and has very good length. He’ll be a second year starter at guard, but may also have potential outside as well. He has a quirky hitch off the snap that is very notable when pulling from his guard spot to block in the run game, that delays him a bit, and is also far too much of a waist bender, so there are technical issues that could use ironing out.
Austin Golson, rJr, C, #73 – 6ft 4, 304 lbs
Yet another junior lineman, Golson is going into his second season starting at center after transferring from Ole Miss in 2014. Though his size is decent, he’s limited by his lack of athleticism, notably slow movement that hinders him when getting out to block on the second level. He’s reliable in pass protection, but doesn’t really stand out in any area.