As Auburn’s defensive line coach, he is known for constantly rotating his players. At times last season, his rotation included as many as a dozen players. And even though the Tigers lost four linemen to graduation — Nosa Eguae, Craig Sanders, Ken Carter and sack leader Dee Ford — they might not see much a drop-off next season.
They have a stout signing day haul to thank for that.
“Defensive line, that was a strength of ours last year. We lost some seniors,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “We really feel like we've filled our needs there. We got some outstanding impact players that Coach Garner is really excited about.”
In sum, the Tigers signed six defensive linemen in their 2014 class, including four ends and two tackles. The final signee of the class was Andrew Williams, a four-star end from McDonough, Ga., who picked Auburn over Clemson and Georgia.
“We've been recruiting him a long time," Malzahn said. "He's a very big, athletic guy that can run, that can rush the passer. Very physical. Coach Garner did a great job with him and he's also a guy that we feel like can give us some depth early on."
Two of the Tigers’ other end prospects fit a similar mold. In Justin Thornton and Raashed Kennion, Auburn added two tall, rangy players. Kennion stands at 6-foot-6, one inch taller than the 6-5 Thornton. Though each will have to bulk up a bit (Kennion and Thorton each weigh 230 pounds), Malzahn wasn’t worried.
They weren’t recruited by accident, after all.
“Coach Garner likes length out there -- length and athleticism,” Malzahn said. “Both those guys definitely have it. After they get in year-round weight program you’re going to see them even swell up more. They both have very good motors and can both really rush the passer.”
DaVonte Lambert rounds out the group of incoming defensive ends. He played this past season at Georgia Military College in Milledgeville, Ga., where he collected 36 tackles, eight sacks and four fumble recoveries.
Recruiting services have ranked Lambert as the nation’s top-ranked junior college defensive lineman, and he has the skills to give the Tigers numerous options.
“On first and second down, he can be a really strong run-stopping defensive end. In a third-down situation you can put him inside and create mismatches on pass rush,” Garner said. “He has a lot of versatility. He has (a) demeanor and character that reminds me of (senior lineman) Jeff Whitaker. I’m excited about his leadership and what he’s going to bring to the room.”
Lambert won’t be the only new face from Georgia Military College joining the fray this fall. Teammate Devaroe Lawrence, who hails from Greenville, S.C., committed to Auburn last summer. While Lambert is still a bit raw after sitting out the 2012 campaign, Garner liked that, knowing there are plenty of areas he can help Lawrence shore up.
Most importantly, Lawrence will have three years of eligibility at Auburn thanks to his redshirt season at GMC.
“He has a lot of ability,” Garner said. “I think he can definitely help us in the rotation, especially with the athleticism he brings to the position. I think we got more athletic inside than what we were. I’m excited about his development.”
If it wasn’t for Garner, the final member of Auburn’s new crop of linemen likely never would have left his home state of Georgia. Dontavius Russell, a highly-touted tackle from Carrollton, Ga., was a longtime Georgia commitment until December, when he pledged to Auburn. In the end, the Tigers had an advantage the Bulldogs couldn’t match: Garner and Russell’s uncle, Dennis Wallace, were teammates at Auburn in the 1980s.
Russell’s talent, while readily apparent — he was a first-team all-state selection after recording 62 tackles (7.5 for loss) and three sacks last fall — didn’t keep his future position coach from singing his praises.
“He's explosive. He's quick. He can run,” Garner said. “He's smart. He's strong at the point of attack. He's a true inside guy that not only can play the run, but he has some quickness and athleticism and can create a pass rush."
Identifying those types of characteristics was more difficult last year. Malzahn’s tenure as Auburn’s coach was barely two months old. At that point, the Tigers were scrambling to fill out their class before signing day.
One year later, the coaching staff knows exactly what it wants when it hits the recruiting trail.
Consider the Tigers’ new batch of defensive linemen as a perfect example of that ideal.
“Our guys got a whole year to really go after the type of body type, the type of athleticism and everything that goes with that for each position,” Malzahn said. “That’s what’s exciting for our coaches — they had a full year to not only identify it, but recruit the guys. It’s very good."