Where will Byron Cowart play on Auburn's defense?
A lack of a pass rush was Auburn’s No. 1 liability last season during a 1-4 finish last season.
The Tigers are counting on several additions to counteract that scourge: defensive coordinator Will Muschamp (for about $1.6 million), Carl Lawson (returning from a torn ACL), DaVonte Lambert (ditto) and Byron Cowart (five-star true freshman).
Lawson is a perfect fit for Muschamp’s “Buck” position, a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid previously occupied by Dante Fowler, a projected Top 5 pick in the upcoming NFL draft. The “Buck” must be versatile enough to both set the edge against the run and rush the passer from a two- and three-point stance. It’s the highlight position within Muschamp’s defense.
“Carl’s a Buck,” defensive line coach Rodney Garner said, according to AL.com. “That’s where he’s been since day one. With his skill set, that’s really a good fit for him.”
While Gimel President has practiced both positions, he’s a more natural run-stopper and projects better at the “defensive end” spot in Muschamp’s defense. The rest of Auburn’s top players at the position fit into neat categories: defensive ends and “Buck.”
That leaves Cowart, expected to arrive this summer, without a position. Will Auburn stash him at “Buck,” knowing he’ll have to play behind the more developed Lawson, or move him to defensive end, where he’s not yet a physical fit?
Within Muschamp’s multiple-front system, when Auburn shifts to a 3-4 alignment, the end opposite the “Buck” must account for two gaps rather than penetrating the way an end does in a typical 4-3. It’s a read-and-react role rather than an attacking one. It also requires a bigger player to be most effective due to the run responsibilities.
But Auburn most likely wants Cowart, most recently listed at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, to rush the passer, perhaps his greatest strength coming out of Armwood High School in Seffner, Fla. So what gives?
Here are the current players ticketed to play “Buck.” Note the average weight is a near carbon copy of Cowart, though it’s fair to suspect he’ll be able to add a little weight before the start of the season.
And here are the players that currently project as ends within Muschamp’s system. Note the two frontrunners are more than 40 pounds heavier than Cowart.
Not to say that Cowart will break the SEC freshman sack record, as Myles Garrett did last season for Texas A&M, but Cowart is a very similar player physically coming out of high school. Garrett recorded 11.5 sacks as a true freshman in 2014, but got pushed around playing run defense.
The difference, though, is that Muschamp’s defense gives Auburn the luxury of featuring Cowart’s strengths while hiding his weaknesses. Eventually he’ll replace Lawson as the starting “Buck,” whether Lawson enters the NFL draft early after this season or returns in 2016.
But for now, Muschamp can find clear passing situations to deploy a 4-3 front, with Lawson and Cowart on opposite sides. Depending on how quickly Cowart picks up the scheme and how much weight he adds, Auburn can find additional snaps for him either to give Lawson an occasional rest at “Buck” or as a rotational player at end.
In truth, for 2015, the Tigers have a greater need for Cowart to add good weight and force the issue with him as a run-stopper. While the team has been cautious with Lawson, keeping him from contact during spring practices, Lambert didn’t tear his ACL until well into November. Even if he’s 100 percent by fall camp, which is no guarantee, he presumably will be behind Daniel.
Muschamp’s versatility is a great asset to the Tigers in trying to find a way to take advantage of Cowart’s pass-rush skills early in his Auburn career. The defensive coordinator has preached getting his best pass-rushers on the field in obvious throwing situations, and he’ll find a way to do that with the five-star freshman.