Replacing Carl Lawson won’t be an easy task for the Auburn Tigers. After dealing with injuries for his first few years on the Plains, Lawson was able to stay healthy for the entire 2016 season.
That resulted in Lawson leading the team with 14 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in 13 games. Lawson’s ability to provide consistent pressure on quarterbacks gave Auburn’s defense the ability to create. The problem is finding out who is going to replace him in 2017 and beyond.
Here are the top three candidates to fill the void at buck linebacker.
1. Jeff Holland
Weight: 255 pounds
Skinny: Holland is the most obvious choice to replace Lawson. As a reserve in 2016, he finished with 13 tackles, 3 tackles for loss and 2 sacks.
Holland has a similar build to Lawson. He also shows some similarities in how he plays. He isn’t a quick-twitch pass-rusher like former Clemson star Vic Beasley, but he makes up for it with a physical style and a non-stop motor.
Holland has an above average first step, and he also displays the ability to bend and get to the quarterback. He’s a little tight in his hips which limits his overall athleticism, however. He could also stand to add more strength to allow him to hold up with a heavier workload.
Still, he can be a productive player in Auburn’s system with a full-time role, and he should be considered the favorite to win the starting job.
2. Paul James III
Weight: 271 pounds
Skinny: James had gotten off to a nice start before a knee injury ended his season three games into the 2016 season. Limited to a rotational role, James had three tackles with one for a loss, but he was already showing signs of being an impact player.
In 2016, James was listed as the co-backup along with former 5-star Byron Cowart at the defensive end position behind freshman phenom Marlon Davidson. There have been rumors, however, that James could see some snaps at the buck linebacker moving forward.
He currently has the most size of the candidates, but that also comes with the lack of athleticism that some would expect. The buck needs to be a lot more flexible when it comes to playing in space. It remains to be seen how comfortable James would be doing that.
James should see the field plenty in 2017 if he can show that he is fully recovered from his knee injury. It just remains to be seen if that will be at the base defensive end backing up Davidson again or at the buck linebacker spot.
3. Markaviest Bryant
Weight: 226 pounds
Skinny: Bryant is the dark horse in this race. It’s not going to be easy for him considering he won’t be enrolling until the summer, but the talent is there to make an immediate impact.
The edge rusher was a 4-star according to 247Sports, and he had offers from almost every major program. He ultimately decided on Auburn because of the family atmosphere — his cousin is former Auburn DT Montravius Adams.
Bryant will immediately become Auburn’s most explosive edge player once he enrolls. Now, that doesn’t automatically mean that talent will translate immediately. Like with Holland, Bryant could stand to bulk up some before next season. He also will need some time to grasp the playbook and defensive assignments.
He might not play much to start the year, but do not be surprised if he has earned a significant role by mid-season.