AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s defensive line is one of the best in the Southeastern Conference, judging it solely on recruiting rankings.
Opposing quarterbacks’ sometimes pristine jerseys the past two seasons tell a different story.
The Tigers open Saturday night with the formidable challenge of chasing after No. 2 Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and tailback Wayne Gallman. Auburn’s line also is hoping to live up to some of the preseason praise its received, though it has been based more on promise than performance.
Defensive tackle Montravius Adams, defensive end Carl Lawson and a pair of backups on the line are all former five-star recruits. Freshman Marlon Davidson, who won the starting job opposite Lawson, leads a group of four-star prospects.
It certainly appears to be the strength of the defense.
“We really want to live up to it a lot,” Adams said. “We haven’t really had that good defensive line like everybody wanted. We haven’t been too good on third down and getting off the field. We just want to live up to the hype like we know we can.”
Clemson’s defensive front has something to prove also: That the group can replace NFL first-round pick Shaq Lawson and his pass rushing partner Kevin Dodd, an early second-rounder after a strong performance in the national championship game against Alabama.
Christian Wilkins turned in a big freshman season and can play both end and tackle. Fellow sophomore Richard Yeargin or Wilkins will start at one of the end spots, along with redshirt freshman Clelin Ferrell. Defensive end Austin Bryant is expected to be out for three games with a foot injury.
“We got a few more guys, (but) defensive end we lost two first-round type of guys,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “That is what it is. Really like the players that we have there. Think they really have a bright future. Just got to grow them up there. Just watching tape in fall camp of different teams and we can hold our own there.”
Clemson’s defensive front will be going against the only part of Auburn’s offense with mostly proven players, the offensive line.
Auburn defenses have struggled to mount a consistent pass rush since first-round pick Dee Ford left for the NFL after the 2013 national runner-up season. Auburn ranked 95th nationally in sacks per game in 2014 and 104th last season. It hasn’t helped that Lawson missed all of 2014 and half of last season with injuries. But the decision of Adams and Lawson not to enter the NFL draft after last season was a major boost.
Auburn has stockpiled talent on the line, though last year’s No. 1 overall prospect according to two national recruiting services saw little action. Byron Cowart is backing up Davidson, who enrolled in January and went through spring practice.
Tackle Derrick Brown was Auburn’s top signee in February and is backing up Adams. He had 81 tackles for loss and 33.5 career sacks at Lanier High School in Georgia. Dontavius Russell is back starting next to Adams.
Auburn’s defensive linemen must try to bring down or contain Watson, the first FBS quarterback to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season.
“It’s the first game and just coming off where we were last year so we’re just trying to earn back everybody’s respect,” Adams said. “Everybody knows Deshaun Watson is a Heisman candidate but if we can get to him, we can get to a lot of quarterbacks in the league.”
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli contributed to this report.