Auburn Football: Carl Lawson is the X-Factor For the Tigers on Defense


As we look ahead to the 2015 Auburn football season, it’s easy to see that Carl Lawson is the X-Factor for the Tigers on defense. Why? He was the X-Factor in 2014 as well.

What would the 2014 Auburn football season have been like if Carl Lawson were healthy? Probably better than 8-5 overall, 4-4 in SEC play, and with one of the league’s worst statistical defenses.

It’s impossible to measure the impact of one player, or the impact of his absence, but the Tigers’ biggest problem in 2014 was Lawson’s strongest asset: rushing the passer.

Lawson’s knee injury in the spring of 2014 was a blow to a defensive line that was already dealing with the loss of Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae, who had 10.5 and two sacks in 2013, respectively. As a true freshman for the 12-2, SEC Champion Tigers, Lawson had four sacks in limited duty.

With the Freshman All-American on the shelf with a surgically repaired ACL and returning starter LaDarius Owens dealing with his own injuries, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was forced to get creative.

RELATED: “Every Job Wide Open” on Defense This Spring

Defensive tackles Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams cross-trained at defensive end, and late in the season middle linebacker Cassanova McKinzy was utilized in obvious passing downs. All three are talented, but defensive end wasn’t the best use of those talents.

Furthermore, DaVonte Lambert (a 280-pound JUCO transfer better suited to play defensive tackle) and unheralded sophomore Gimel President – two players few expected to receive a great deal of playing time – emerged as starters at defensive end. Again, they are good players, but not as good as a healthy Lawson or Owens.

Overall, Auburn had 21 sacks – 11 fewer than the 2013 unit. Kris Frost and Lambert shared the team lead with 3.5 apiece. 

With time to operate, opposing quarterbacks were able to pick apart the Tigers secondary, especially in the second half of the season. After allowing 206.4 passing yards per game and a total of three passing touchdowns in the first five contests of the season  (all Auburn victories), the Tigers allowed 244.9 in the final eight games and 19 TDs through the air.

That stat even includes three games in which Auburn allowed fewer than 125 passing yards to powerhouse rushing teams Georgia and Wisconsin as well as FCS opponent Samford.

Take those three out and the Tigers surrendered 268.8 passing yards and 16 passing touchdowns to Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Alabama. They also allowed more than 31 points in all five games.

That performance cost Auburn football games and also cost Ellis Johnson his job. Would it have been different if Lawson hadn’t injured his knee last spring? Maybe.

With an All-SEC caliber pass rusher on the outside, Johnson could have better utilized his defensive line personnel and kept players in their natural positions. The unit would have been stronger, faster, more experienced and more talented. Johnson wouldn’t have needed to blitz linebackers as often, leaving defensive backs vulnerable to big plays. A slightly better defense would have beaten Texas A&M and Wisconsin, and maybe Alabama as well.

Of course, what’s done is done.

Now that Will Muschamp has been hired to run the Auburn defense, there is much to be optimistic about for the Tigers on defense – specifically when it comes to rushing the passer and Adams can concentrate on wreaking havoc on the interior instead of trying to be something he’s not. Lambert and President gained valuable experience, and the Tigers were able to sign the nation’s best defensive end prospect in Byron Cowart.

Plus, the secondary should be stronger as well with Muschamp and Travaris Robinson leading the unit, three starters back and adding talented transfer Tray Matthews to the lineup.

But most importantly, Lawson is back and healthy and ready to make an impact in the pass rush.

And he certainly looks better than ever:

Lawson and the Tigers will return to spring practice Tuesday March 31 following Spring Break. The A-Day spring game is Saturday April 18.

Next: Auburn Football Spring Practice Stock Report

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